By Lisa Rossi, Adam Bednar, Andrew Metcalf and Laura Thornton
Cell phone robbery in Maryland has become a common occurrence, police say, with thieves sometimes attacking their victims with fists and weapons amid an easy resale market.
In recent months, victims have reported being punched, kicked and sprayed with pepper spray while being robbed of cell phones and iPhones as they walked, jogged or got out of their cars. In one incident, a gun was used to threaten a victim, police say.
Thieves also snatch phones from unlocked cars and aren't always deterred even when vehicles are locked, according to police reports in Montgomery County.
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“I think cell phone theft happens all the time,” said officer Janelle Smith of the Montgomery County Police Department.
She said the crime often goes unpunished.
“It’s a hard thing to track,” she added. “We are not seeing them resold in this county, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t taken to a pawn shop ...."
Police in Howard County said cell phones are being sold at pawn shops, on Craigslist or by used video game and device retailers, which will take and sell a phone without realizing it's stolen property.
“They are resold more often than people will hang on for personal use,” said Howard County police spokeswoman Mary Phelan. “There’s a whole market out there for used phones.”
There is another avenue that is a concern for police: "Reverse Vending Machines,” which are kiosks that allow people to drop off their phones in exchange for cash.
Howard County police said they have also recovered stolen phones from the machines.
EcoAtm has defended its product, saying the company helps police find those who have sold stolen phones. Also, “stolen phones represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the company's business,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
The ways cell phones have been swiped since this summer vary from the mundane to the violent.
- A Columbia teen was recently hospitalized with a fractured jaw after police said seven teens from Laurel punched and stomped him before stealing his iPhone and cash. The victim was walking in Columbia at around 10 a.m. at the time of the incident, police said.
- More than a half dozen thefts were reported this summer from vehicles in the Somerset and Friendship Heights areas in Chevy Chase. In some cases, cell phones were swiped from locked vehicles opened by force; in others thieves targeted unlocked cars, police said.
- In North Baltimore in August, police reported a cluster of robberies in which suspects swiped iPhones and cell phones. In one case, they took a phone from a man getting out of his car, and in another, from a jogger. Police said the robbers used items such as pepper spray, and possibly a Taser in the robberies. The rash of cell phone robberies culminated in a shooting of a 36-year-old man in Roland Park, which police said was connected to the earlier incidents.
Also in Columbia, police have reported two boys, 13 and 15, punched a girl in the face as she was walking at 8:30 p.m. in an attempt to steal her cell phone. They also reported incidents of young men using a gun to threaten a boy walking along a bike path in efforts to get the boy’s iPhone and sunglasses.
Police say consumers should be mindful of walking around carrying highly valuable cell phones openly.
“People see it as routine to visibly carry a phone worth several hundred dollars, but would never walk around with the same amount of cash in their hand,” said Cpl. Cathleen E. Batton of the Baltimore County Police Department.
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