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Thieves want to rip off your smartphone

Smartphones, tablets, even now bulky laptops — they’re here to stay.

They connect us.

They also make us objects of crime.

“Looking at the robberies, they’ve become the main target,” said Las Vegas police robbery Sgt. Steve Candelas.

It’s a nationwide trend. According to a Consumer Reports study, about one in every three robberies in the United States involves a smartphone. Some cities, such as San Francisco, report a number closer to 50 percent, according to San Francisco police Sgt. Dennis Toomer.

“It’s all over, all the major cities,” Toomer said. “It’s become common. Almost too common.”

The Metropolitan Police Department does not keep statistics or track the number of cellphone thefts in its jurisdiction, according to officer Lawrence Hadfield, a Las Vegas police spokesman.

The upward trend in mobile device theft, which has come to be called “Apple picking,” is on Las Vegas police’s radar, though.

“We were already looking into that about two years ago,” Candelas said of crime involving wireless devices. “They are very popular, easy to use, and everyone wants them.”

TARGETED FOR TECHNOLOGY THEFT

Police arrested 18-year-old Markeyz Johnston on May 26 after a series of armed robberies in east Las Vegas. Police believe Johnston helped orchestrate at least three robberies over a two-week period near East Las Vegas Park, near Boulder Highway and Tropicana Avenue.

In those robberies, Johnston and the other suspects, who have not been identified by police, seemed to mainly be after smartphones, as each robbery involved at least one of those devices.

On May 25, the suspects approached a man in the parking lot of the Sportsman Royal Manor, about a half-mile from East Las Vegas Park, and one of them asked to use the man’s cellphone.

When the man obliged, one of the suspects said, “This (expletive) is mine,” and began to walk away, the report said.

When the man tried to confront them, one of the suspects pointed a handgun at him and threatened to shoot him in the face.

About 30 minutes later, police say the same group of suspects robbed another man at gunpoint at East Las Vegas Park of a pair of high-end shoes, an iPod and an iPhone.

According to police reports, Johnston admitted to taking part in other crimes as well.

“People are getting punched in the face, getting weapons pulled on them, over a cellphone device,” Toomer said. It’s just crazy.”

Violence can quickly escalate in these snatch-and-grab crimes.

On May 16, 15-year-old Marcos Arenas was killed after two men attempted to take his iPad as he was walking on Charleston Boulevard near Rainbow Boulevard, according to Las Vegas police. Arenas clung to the iPad, a cherished birthday gift from his father, as the suspects attempted to speed away in a white SUV.

Arenas was thrown under the vehicle and killed.

“We’ve been seeing your regular, strong-arm street robberies getting more violent,” Candelas said.

The suspects, Jacob Dismont, 18, and Michael Solid, 21, were arrested and face murder and robbery charges.

Police call the case a fatal example of “Apple picking,” a nationwide grab-and-run computer theft phenomenon. Las Vegas police warned in September that detectives investigating a report of a stolen cellphone turned up evidence that two groups of thieves were preying on people who were distracted or inattentive while using hand-held smartphones and personal computers in public.

In some cases, victims were talking or texting when a thief grabbed the device and ran to a waiting vehicle.

Las Vegas police homicide Lt. Ray Steiber has said investigators were trying to determine if Solid and Dismont were responsible for other similar cases.

CALL FOR KILL SWITCH

It’s been dubbed the modern day purse snatch by some police departments, as the crimes are quick and often violent. With the advancements in mobile devices, smartphones aren’t the only targets, as seen in Arenas’ case.

“It’s not just the phones. It’s the iPads, tablet type devices, laptops,” Toomer said. “Every day, you see some type of robbery that involves a smartphone or tablet device.”

These devices are easily sold on the street and often for higher resale value than at a legitimate sales site.

According to Candelas, thieves know how to wipe the phone clean and then resell it at the local swap meets with ease.

Nationally, attempts to quell the robberies, which include setting up undercover cops to buy and sell phones on the street to track down the suspects, have barely made a dent, Toomer said.

“We’ve been trying to tackle the problem every which way,” he said.

Nationally, many are calling for a “kill switch” in these devices, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, saying that it would severely cut down on the value of these products to would-be criminals by making them virtually unusable.

On June 10, Apple Inc. announced that its next smartphone software, the iOS7, will have a feature to prevent the phone from having its data and tracking device apps wiped out by thieves.

Candelas puts the onus on the user to be cautious when using these devices in public, noting that people often are less aware of their surroundings when using their devices in public, becoming an easier target for would-be criminals.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638. Follow him on Twitter @clochhead44.

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