Maryland transit police are warning travelers to be alert on trains and buses, amid a long-running rash of mobile-device thefts targeting riders who were texting, listening to music or talking on the phone.
The Maryland Transit Administration has logged more than 200 such incidents since it began tracking them at the beginning of last year in response to a series of customer complaints. A spike in these crimes followed the 2011 release of Apple's iPhone 4S, and the trend has kept up, with thieves taking music players, e-readers and tablet computers.
Riders in Baltimore are not alone. Law enforcement agencies across the country are seeing similar trends, with police departments in New York City and Washington recently reporting increases. Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts says the issue occurs across Baltimore.
The crime has proliferated, in part, because thieves are now able to exchange phones and other devices for cash at ATM-like kiosks, according to law enforcement officials. And transit riders have simply become easy targets, authorities said.
"We believe it's a crime of opportunity," said Lt. Kelly Holman, commander of the special operations division for the MTA police. "Cellphones, iPads, Kindles, game systems — anything that can be grabbed."
Transit rider Bryan Barnes said he had a close call earlier this year on the Baltimore Metro, which he used to take into the city from Owings Mills.
While watching a video on his iPhone 5, the 33-year-old said a young man in a group tried to grab his phone but was unable to pry it from Barnes' grip. He said other riders came to his aid — "Two ladies sitting across from me yelled at them, and said, 'We got your back.' " But though the thief failed, Barnes decided to stop taking the subway.
"What's the point of risking theft or injury?" he said.
Batts told City Council members this week that device thefts have been a problem — not just around public transportation hubs but also on the city's college campuses. The Police Department doesn't keep statistics on thefts of cellphones and other mobile devices.
"It has become a spike and a consistent pattern around the city for us," Batts said.
Holman said the MTA has partnered with other area law enforcement agencies to step up enforcement around a dozen "hot spot" transit stops where officers have been boarding buses, talking to drivers and taking a quick stroll through the passenger areas. Audio reminders play on board every 30 minutes, reminding passengers to pay attention to their surroundings.
In January, a passenger boarding a train at the Mondawmin Mall station said he noticed five people following him. According to charging documents, he later told officers that the group had made him "a little suspicious, but he did not think they were going to do anything."
Moments later, he was put into a headlock by one man as another grabbed his iPhone 4 from a jacket pocket. He reported the crime to police, who began pulling surveillance footage and analyzing transit card records.
The next day, the victim called police again. He recognized one of his attackers at Mondawmin Mall, and police arrested a 22-year-old who had been charged in a similar crime in Baltimore County a month earlier but was released on $75,000 bail.
Baltimore resident Chrissy Howser, 26, said she stopped commuting on the MTA train after seeing a man robbed last year.
The man chased some teens off the train at the Penn North station, screaming that they had taken his iPad, she said. She doesn't know if he was able to get it back, but a few weeks later, she said, she saw him again on a train with an iPad and headphones in his ears.
"He was oblivious," Howser said. "I would never take my iPad on the train."
In New York, police reported last fall that thefts of iPhones and iPads had climbed 40 percent from January through September, contributing to an overall rise in crime. "As if to mirror the marketplace, thefts of Apple products increased this year as the theft of electronics by other manufacturers declined," police said in a report.
The agency launched a campaign encouraging people to register their Apple devices and ran sting operations to catch people selling stolen goods.
District of Columbia police Chief Cathy Lanier said the surge in the theft of Apple products is the biggest she's seen for any single type of property in her 24-year career.
Batts pointed to the emergence of ATM-like kiosks called ecoATMs, which are mostly located in suburban malls and exchange phones and electronics for cash on the spot, as a possible factor in the increase of mobile device thefts. Police elsewhere, including in Washington, Los Angeles and Atlanta, also have said they believe that the kiosks are playing a role in these thefts.
Lanier also blames the kiosks, saying more than 200 stolen phones have been recovered from suburban area ecoATM kiosks in just a few weeks. She formed a task force of 18 officers to work exclusively on stolen phones, and said she will fight to shut down every ecoATM kiosk that she can.
"You can drop 35 phones in a day if you want, and that doesn't raise any red flags for this company," Lanier said. She added that the company sells the phones overseas.
Ryan Kuder, director of marketing for San Diego-based ecoATM, called Lanier's position "disheartening." He said that out of 70,000 transactions, fewer than 200 involved stolen phones and only a handful of suspects, and that only one-fifth of phones are sold overseas.
"We've tried to make ecoATM the worst place to sell a stolen phone," Kuder said. EcoATM requires users to submit information such as a driver's license and thumbprint, among other security policies.
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Police in Baltimore County — where four of the region's eight ecoATMs are located — say they know of only one such case, and in working with ecoATM security were able to recover the victim's phone.
Holman said MTA police are in daily contact with the company and that none of the property stolen in any MTA incident has been deposited into these machines.
Holman said big profit does not appear to be the motive. A thief might resell a $400 phone for $20 and use the money to get something to eat, she said.
With many of the thefts committed by juveniles, Holman said, the involvement of school police is particularly useful. In some cases, police have circulated surveillance camera images that led school officers to make an identification. Many suspects are believed to be involved in multiple thefts, she said.
MTA police haven't run any plainclothes operations, saying they favor a visible presence that might deter thefts. On a recent weekday, the MTA parked a giant command truck near the Lexington Market bus and subway stop. A satellite tower slowly rose into the sky, a surveillance camera pointed toward the street corner.
Holman said they aren't telling riders not to use mobile devices, "but to be careful."