Where’s Your iPhone? Las Vegas police say odds are it’s in China

Don’t worry about your stolen iPhone. It’s probably just going back home.

Las Vegas police recently busted Quoc Nguyen, owner of Desert Wireless at 1500 E. Tropicana Ave., for buying stolen phones from street thugs and flipping them for huge profits, acting as the middleman in an international crime ring.

Nguyen resold the stolen phones in bulk to man named William He, who would ship the phones to be sold in China, where many phones are manufactured, according to his arrest report.

Nguyen, 32, made as much as $30,000 a week in the operation, he told police.

Police have been battling phone thieves for the past few years, said Lt. Dennis Flynn of the department’s Bolden Area Command.

As smartphones became more popular, they also became a target for criminals.

“The iPhone is probably the most common stolen item in street robberies,” Flynn said.

Detectives uncovered Nguyen’s operation after a burglary at the Sprint store at 3862 W. Sahara Ave., near Valley View Boulevard, the morning of Sept. 19.

An unidentified suspect stole 28 still-in-the-box iPhones valued at more than $12,000. But the man also stole a display phone with working phone number and GPS. Store employees tracked it to Nguyen’s business before they called police.

Nguyen initially denied having any of the stolen phones when police arrived. But Det. Jayme Nordstrom dialed the display phone’s number and, sure enough, it started ringing.

“Hats off to the detective, too,” Flynn said. “Pretty smart to go in there and dial the phone.”

The store owner fessed up quickly after Nordstrom’s trick. Detectives found 23 of the stolen phones from the Sprint store, and Nguyen said there were about 100 total stolen phones in his possession. He was arrested and booked on charges of possession of stolen property that night.

Nguyen said he bought the phones from a criminal named “Danny Z.,” who he’d been working with for two months. He only paid $200 for the whole load, Flynn said.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s more than some criminal will get if they try to rob a convenience store for $40,” he said.

Flynn said arresting Nguyen should have an impact on cell phone robberies and burglaries, which have been prevalent in the valley this month.

From Sept. 13 to Thursday, at least seven cell phone stores were burglarized in various parts of the valley. In the latest, a suspect drove a truck into a store, snatched the electronics and fled.

But those criminals need to unload their merchandise, and Nguyen’s store was one of the popular choices.

“The value of the phone is nothing unless you have an outlet to get rid of it,” Flynn said. “If we take Quoc out of the equation, that’s one less person that people will have to go to.”

Many of the phones are shipped overseas because they can be sold without repercussions.

In the U.S., there’s a national registry for stolen phones. Unless a phone’s identifier is modified, a carrier won’t activate it.

There are ways around the modifier, but it’s easier to ship the phones to places like China, Africa, Korea or Vietnam, where the registry has no impact, Flynn said.

Nguyen told police he would check the phone’s serial numbers after buying them. If they were listed as stolen, they’d go into a pile to be shipped. If they weren’t listed as stolen, Nguyen would sell them locally or in Los Angeles.

“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.

Capt. Larry Burns, who oversees Bolden, praised his detectives for their hard work. Stealing iPhones and other Apple products, called “Apple picking,” sometimes turns deadly, he said, recalling the March death of a teenager killed for his iPad.

Cell phone companies should make it more difficult for a phone to be resold, he said.

“They’ve created the market for this mess,” he said. “The technology is so far advanced, and if we cut to the root of the problem and make these devices harder to sell, we can eliminate this demand. Or at least reduce it,” he said.

Flynn said consumers should be aware of their surroundings and realize how much thieves value their phones.

If buying or selling a used phone, he urged people to use reputable businesses, such as

“If you go to a pawn shop, or buy something off Craigslist, you take the chance,” he said. “If it comes up as stolen, the police are going to come and recover it.”

He said the department wants to actively investigate local businesses to be sure they’re complying with the law and not buying stolen items, either unknowingly, or like Nguyen, knowingly.

“He got himself on a terrible, slippery slope. What was probably once a legit business turned into greed, where he realized he could make a lot of money doing this.

“It ended up biting him.”

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at Follow @blasky on Twitter.

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