iPhone theft: Why police are worried about drop in crime

(CBS News) Smartphone theft has hit an all-time high this year in major cities, such as New York and Los Angeles. But then, suddenly, the week before the release of the new iPhone 5, the thefts ground to a near halt.

"What we are seeing on the part of the crooks is that they follow the trends of the buying public," said a top NYPD official. Police believe that just as the customers stopped buying the old iPhones to wait for the new ones to come out, the thieves stopped stealing them to wait to steal the new ones. With 2 million iPhone 5s on the street, and more coming, police are bracing for a surge in thefts.

In New York City, the theft of iPhones has actually driven up crime in a city where crime has steadily declined for the last 15 years. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said, "Our crime statistics have gone up almost four percent this year. If, in fact, there were no thefts of Apple products, we actually have a decrease this year."

Since the first iPhone was released in 2007, New York City theft of Apple products has nearly tripled from 5,232, reaching 13,782 in just the first nine months of this year. Then, a week before the release of the iPhone 5, the thefts larceny reports in New York went from being up by 10 percent to down by 12 percent. Crime analysts believe that sudden drop in crime is directly attributable to the thieves holding back to wait for the new product. Kelly said, "We know that the sales are very robust as far as iPhone 5s are concerned, so yeah, we have to anticipate that."

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Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy, who just returned from the Major City Police Chief's Conference, told CBS News, "Just about every major city across the country has the same exact crime dynamic. Those gadgets are valuable, as a result drive crime trend." McCarthy said, "As a new product comes out, that becomes the item du jour that criminals want to steal."

Ashley Sadillo was at a bus stop in San Francisco when she was assaulted for her iPhone. "I kind of thought it was someone kind of playing a prank on me. And then I realized with how forceful they were, when they whipped me around, that it was not a joke."

"No one saw a thing. It happened so fast", said Samantha Lim, who was sitting at a table at a New York City restaurant when her phone was wiped by a man who had appeared to be another patron. "He literally had only been there for 15 or 20 minutes before he spotted my phone, checked to see that I wasn't looking, and it was five inches away from my elbows at the time, and he just took it so fast, and just walked right out the door."

Even if victims like Sadillo and Lim deactivate their phones, they can easily be reprogrammed with a new SIM card, and then resold. Apple has built-in apps like "Find My iPhone" which will locate the device using GPS and another feature that will allow you to wipe your data from a swiped phone. But what could the phone carriers, like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, who provide the signal to the Apple products, do to make all the stealing stop?

"That's an easy question," Kelly said. "We've been asking for this for years, that is, in essence, to disconnect the phone, making it a useless piece of junk if it's stolen."

And why, after years of requests, could the phone carriers be resisting the option of permanently disabling stolen phones? Because a stolen phone once reprogrammed, generates a new number, a new bill, and a new way for the phone company to make money. Over time, phone carriers have given different reasons for not wanting the "kill switch" option. The carriers have said that dealing with theft is a job for the police and that they were hesitant to get caught in between messy divorces with people switching other people's phones off, frat boy pranks, and other disputes.

Legislation proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would create a national registry of stolen phones with the Federal Communications Commission that would stop people from re-registering the phone if it's stolen based on identifying information akin to running a license plate on a stolen car.

The process, according to police officials, would take a year or two to enact. Still, police chiefs across the country say once a victim has a police report showing the phone has been reported stolen, the carrier could disable the unique code that makes the phone functional on their system and make it worthless. NYPD's Commissioner Kelly said, "This would make a significant difference because it takes away the incentive to steal one of these phones."

The industry reaction to Schumer's legislation, proposed in April, have been largely positive. Verizon pledged at the time to "work with policymakers [and others] ... to increase consumer protections, and to empower consumers with additional resources to help ensure stolen devices cannot be used or accessed illegally."

AT&T said in a statement that "we appreciate the Senator's efforts to do the same and we look forward to working with him and his colleagues as this legislation moves forward to ensure that customer security and privacy issues are adequately addressed."

CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group, said in a statement that Schumer's legislation "will be an important tool in the effort to combat the theft of wireless devices. We hope Congress moves quickly to pass this important bill."

Watch John Miller's full report in the video above.

  • John Miller

    John Miller is a senior correspondent for CBS News, with extensive experience in intelligence, law enforcement and journalism, including stints in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI.

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