TAMPA — Natalie Chehourie stepped away for two minutes.
She left her books and binder at a desk on the second floor of the University of South Florida library. She just needed to use the restroom.
When she returned, the iPhone that was under her binder was gone. She thinks someone must have been watching.
"It's really creepy," said Chehourie, 22.
The USF library has seen a rash of thefts recently. Often, there's one or two a month. But in March, there were eight.
And it's not cyclical, police say. In March 2009, there wasn't a single theft reported in the library, said USF police spokeswoman Meg Ross.
"Somebody has come up with an idea that's working for them, and we have not been able to stop it as of yet," she said.
Though the library recently increased its hours, remaining open nonstop from noon Sunday until 6 p.m. Friday, police don't believe that influenced the surge in thefts. All occurred this semester between 11:30 a.m. and 8:40 p.m.
Library staff recently put up posters warning visitors and police increased their library patrols. But they haven't caught anyone in the act, and no one has been arrested.
Police don't know if one person committed all 14 of the thefts reported this semester or if multiple people are involved. The library staff is talking with campus police about using undercover officers, said Nancy Cunningham, director of academic services.
Officials point out that the crimes aren't violent. Pricey textbooks, laptops and cell phones are stolen when students get up to use the restroom or to pick up a book.
The library isn't off-limits to the public. Between 6,000 and 7,000 people enter the building each day, Cunningham said.
Ross encourages students to watch for suspicious activities, but she and Cunningham noted it's often hard to determine if the person picking up a cell phone or laptop is the owner or a thief.
"It's often young people who look like students, so they can get away," Cunningham said. "We don't wear badges saying 'USF student,' 'non-USF student.' "
Last semester, police arrested a woman they believe had stolen items from the library.
Stephanie Dawn Moore, 20, a former USF student, was charged with grand theft in September.
She was released from jail, but Ross said Moore had gone back to the library to steal again. She was booked again in November on three counts of grand theft.
Chehourie said she doesn't expect police will ever recover her hot-pink iPhone, even though she has the serial number. She has already replaced it, but doesn't think she'll ever be able to regain a feeling of security on campus.
"I just hope that there's some kind of regulation of who can come in the library," she said. "Maybe they can check student IDs because there needs to be more awareness of what's going on."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.