Travel theft: smartphones are the #1 target

iPhone, photo courtesy of Apple

When we travel, we often take valuable gear to better enjoy our trip, work while away, capture the memories we make in exotic lands and be prepared to handle emergencies. We bring music players, game devices, laptops, tablets, still and video cameras, and, of course, smartphones.

In fact, smartphones for travel, especially international travel, have almost become de rigueur.

Smartphones hold many advantages for travelers.

I use mine to display my boarding passes for planes, buses and trains, rather than paper passes which can get crumpled and torn, becoming unreadable. I store password protected PDF scans of my passport and other travel documents, in case of theft. I use its maps, subway, taxi and train apps to help me get around. I carry guide books in it. I use an itinerary app to keep me up to date on flights and other transportation, plus hotel, restaurant, event and tour reservations. It’s great in case of emergency when you have to quickly make new reservations or make a quick change in plans.

I could go on and on about the myriad of valuable smartphone travel uses.

Unfortunately, while smartphones might be the most useful travel tool you can own, they have become the number one target for thieves, especially in big cities, which are important and popular tourist destinations.

According to the State University of New York at Albany, Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, street robbers target: cash, purses, wallets, credit cards, mobile phones, MP3 players, jewelry, cameras, tablets, and ultra-laptops. If it’s small, easy to conceal, valuable, easily plucked from the victim and easily sold, it’s on their radar. Passports aren’t a big theft item in the US, but they are in other parts of the world.

According to police, while some street thieves may have a modus operandi, they are all “thieves of opportunity.” They’ll go after most anything they see which looks valuable and is easy to snatch.

Because of the way smartphones are held and used, they are easy to steal, so street criminals target them more than any other electronic device.

In use, smartphones, more often than not, are in the open, handheld, often at the end of an outstretched arm when using their maps, other apps or camera for stills and video. Or, they’re at the side of one’s head, in the open, extremely easy to snatch. Adding to their vulnerability as a prime theft target, their users are generally not paying much attention to their surroundings, as they are engrossed in conversation or using an app on the phone, staring only at the phone’s screen.

It’s all too easy for thieves to grab a smartphone, then run like “bats out of hell” before their victims gather their wits and react in any way. By the time they usually react, their smartphone is long gone.

While smartphones as a group are major targets, iPhones in particular seem to be the most valued smartphones by thieves across the globe.

In New York City (NYC), for example, iDevices are so popular among criminals that the NYPD specifically tracks “Apple” thefts. In 2013, Apple iPhones, and other iDevices, (mostly iPhones by far) made up more than 18 percent of all grand larcenies in the “Big Apple,” which is more than 8,000 devices, according to the NYPD. That’s not 18 percent of smartphone/MP3 player/tablet thefts, but 18 percent of all NYC grand larcenies. They’ve even given it a name. It’s called “Apple Picking.” Police report that just about all iPhone thefts occur when they’re in plain sight and in use.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said recently about avoiding becoming a street crime statistic, “Individuals alert to their surroundings are less likely to become victims of thefts of iPhones and other handheld devices,” which is what I’ve been suggesting to travelers for years, in this column and elsewhere, as the number one defense against street crime.

Many travelers think basic street safety is little more than keeping moving and keeping your back to walls. Not only is that not true, but if you’re constantly moving and working to keep your back to walls, you’re not giving yourself a chance to see much while traveling.

The first line of defense against street crime, any street crime, is to use your “street smarts” and intelligence. Stay alert and maintain awareness of your surroundings. Using local knowledge obtained by researching your destinations before traveling and speaking to local residents, including your hotel staff, to avoid problem areas, goes a long way toward protecting yourself and your belongings.

Continuing to use your street awareness is especially critical when using your smartphone apps and holding out your smartphone away from your body. If you can, when using an app on the street, stop walking and stand in front of a store or other building to prevent someone from coming from behind to steal your phone.

Thieves target locations where they know people have cash or where there are many distractions such as public transit hubs, banks, ATM machines, subways, buses, trains, hotel lobbies and long lines at tourist destinations. If using your phone there, use a wireless head set with your phone hidden.

Use a wireless headset for phone calls, too, when you’re concentrating on the conversation, not your surroundings.

  • MeanMeosh

    It’s not just out on the street that you have to be mindful of your stuff. I once had an iPhone ripped out of my hand while on the train on the way to work, and the punk ran out the door before I could even react. After that, I always make sure to hold the phone with both hands at all times, and if I have to stand by a door, to either conceal it between my body and the stairwell/wall or put it back in my pocket while the doors are opened.

  • NedLevi

    I agree MM. The same is true on Subways, Buses, stations, etc., which is why I mentioned that toward the end of my column. Thanks very much for your readership.

  • Bill___A

    Our iphones are unlocked, probably a particularly popular target. Should I put “unlocked” stickers on them?

  • NedLevi

    Bill do you mean you’re not using a passcode to protect your iPhones, or do you mean they are unlocked from any particular cellular carrier so you can put in an alternative carrier’s sim chip?

  • Bill___A

    I should have been more clear. The phones are unlocked phones which means they can be used on pretty much any carrier.
    They do have a passcode, they can be remotely wiped. I would be much more concerned about the SIM card, which of course would have to be reported stolen.
    In any case, I am strongly supportive of a “stolen phone” database which prohibits stolen phones from being used anywhere.

  • NedLevi

    I agree with you. The SIM Card,will be blocked by the carrier within 24 hours of reporting the phone stolen. That can’t be rescinded if you find the phone. If that happens you’ll need to get a new SIM.