Where do stolen smartphones go?

Sarah Schulte Image
Saturday, June 16, 2018
Where do stolen smartphones go?
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They are hard to live without and just about everyone carries a smartphone. But what happens to stolen cell phones?

CHICAGO -- Police say smartphones, especially iPhones, are the same as cash in your hand. You're a target for theft if you have your phone exposed, even in a car.

"He stuck his hand in my window, snatched my phone and ran right into the train station at Randolph and Michigan and there he went into oblivion," said Tracey Alston, a recent cell phone robbery victim in Chicago.

Cell phone robberies happen daily in cities all around the country. So what do the thieves do with the stolen phones?

"If you take it to a re-sale shop, you can sell it anywhere from $100 for an older version up to the latest iPhone X are getting about $300," said Eugene Roy, retired Chicago Police Department Chief of Detectives.

Roy says many independently-owned wireless stores, mom-and-pop stores and pawn shops buy stolen phones with no questions asked.

"From there, folks reprogram it, get rid of the SIM card and reprogram it with a new number or in many cases send it outside the country," said Roy.

RELATED: Smartphone theft down in San Francisco, but not on BART

A city ordinance in Chicago makes it illegal to reprogram phones. But the law is difficult to enforce. Roy said the latest string of cell phone robberies are committed by teenagers.

Alston said her robber was totally disarming and looked like the kid next door. "They're not tattered, they're not with pants hanging below butts, he is the type that makes you think he is a nice young man," said Alston.

Roy explained that thefts by teenagers are easy to pull off. They are rarely caught and if they are, juvenile court treats the crimes as victim-less property crimes, which usually means no jail time.

While using passcodes and anti-theft applications help, police said the best way to prevent your phone from being stolen is to put it away in public.

Roy offered these additional everyday tips to protect yourself against smartphone thefts:

  • Use a passcode or pattern lock that is extremely difficult to guess. Use biometric locks when possible, and consider two-factor authentication, especially on financial applications
  • Employ mobile security software, preferably an anti-virus/anti-theft application. Some of these apps will allow you to remotely execute commands on your phone if it is lost or stolen.
  • Don't set your "home" address on the GPS app to your residence. Having that information can facilitate identity theft or other crimes such as burglary.
  • Make sure your phone is set to lock the home screen within a reasonably short amount of time, generally less than a minute.
  • Back up your cellular device (especially if you haven't in some time and you need recent stored information) so you can remotely wipe the phone to remove sensitive data.
  • Set your phone so it doesn't display text messages when locked, so you'll still receive the alert, but not the content. This will prevent any incoming content from being viewed.

Roy also offered advice on what to do if your phone is lost or stolen:

  • Attempt to locate the phone using the Find My iPhone or Android device manager tools. You can also place the phone into lost mode, preventing any apps from being used.
  • Notify your carrier.
  • Reset all of your passwords to social media, email and financial accounts that you previously accessed on the phone. The passwords won't be there, but password hashes that allow remote access remain and can be used to access your accounts.