Saturday, January 20, 2018
Public safety

Tampa police make video message in face of smartphone thefts

TAMPA — More than a million smartphones were stolen last year. Tampa averages three reported thefts a day.

Though violent snatch-and-run robberies occur, the most common scenario is subtle. People often set cellphones down on tables, bar tops and benches. They leave them in cars.

"It's a crime of opportunity," said Tampa police Chief Jane Castor.

In Washington, New York and other major cities, about 40 percent of all robberies involve cellphones, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

It seems like common sense when pointed out: Smartphones are mini-computers. They're expensive and contain personal information — like a laptop and wallet rolled into one.

But people sometimes still treat them like the more disposable version of years past, when phones could be replaced for $50 or less. Now, a replacement iPhone without insurance can cost $650.

The problem is so pervasive, the iPhone version has some nicknames: iCrime or "apple picking." The New York Attorney General recently launched a Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) initiative, pointing to the statistics and cases where the victims were injured — or even killed.

He wants cellphone operators to add a "kill switch," which would render stolen phones inoperable. That would take away any incentive to steal, he told reporters.

In Tampa, the police department has taken a different approach. The agency created a light-hearted YouTube video featuring a canine phone bandit.

Like its previous Call me, Maybe parody video, the agency hopes it'll get lots of clicks.

"We didn't want a boring video," said spokeswoman Andrea Davis, whose 10-year-old female border collie, Razzy, stars as the bandit.

Retired from competing in agility, Razzy picked up her role quickly. She hides behind a tree at Henry and Ola Park in Tampa and sneaks up behind an unsuspecting visitor, grabbing the cellphone with her teeth.

"It's very creative," Chief Castor said. And she said she hopes viewers will forward it to friends. On social media, animal videos seem to get the most attention, she said.

It took only about 20 minutes to capture on video, Davis said. At the end of the nearly three-minute video, police added tips:

Make a passcode necessary to use the phone. Pay attention to your surroundings while walking and texting. Don't leave your phone inside your car.

Police also suggest downloading a tracking app, and if your phone is stolen, don't immediately cancel your service, they say. Law enforcement can use the device's GPS to track it to the thief. Recently, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office did that with a stolen iPad, which was found in the suspect's car.

In Pinellas County, deputies have seen a steady stream of reported cellphone thefts — commonly from vehicles and at schools, where students often sport the latest gadget.

Tampa police have taken reports of phones wrestled out of people's hands or picked up at restaurants and bars.

"It seems like common sense," Castor said of her department's campaign. "But smartphones have become such a part of our everyday life that we tend to take them for granted."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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