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Cell Phones: Hot Commodity for Thieves in Sometimes Violent Attacks

A teen was recently hospitalized with a fractured jaw suffered in a cell phone robbery.

Police report stolen cell phones being placed into "reverse vending machines." Photo from ecoATM video.
Police report stolen cell phones being placed into "reverse vending machines." Photo from ecoATM video.

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.

Concerned about how to protect your property? Click here for tips from police.

“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.

Baltimore City has passed legislation this month to ban the machines after police officers complained about them to local community leaders.

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.

Some examples:

  • 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.

Do you think cell phone theft and robbery is a problem? Tell us in comments.

Jessica September 30, 2013 at 08:02 AM
How about you phone addicted idiots PUT THEM AWAY while you're not making a phone call? All of the "victims" in these situations are guilty of not paying close attention to their surroundings. No excuse for theives- but let's look up from our technology every once in awhile and focus on our enviornment instead. Looking forward to the 'kill switch' idea for phones being implemented one day...
Buzz Beeler September 30, 2013 at 08:27 AM
The word is the destabilization of a community by the influx of crime and the class of those moving into that particular area.
Anna September 30, 2013 at 09:24 AM
It's a shame that these little techno marvels are deemed so valuable that some people will threaten those who have them with serious bodily harm in order to obtain them.. We are absurdly tied to these things (some of us) both for their supposed usefulness and as an ego identity enhancer. That goes for all classes of people but impresses those of low intelligence and lack of morals all the more.
Jessica September 30, 2013 at 09:40 AM
Exactly Nancy. I wonder if these victims would walk around holding a couple $100 bills in their hands. That is basically what they are doing when they choose to make their phones their first priority. Of course the lower class people are going to take your money if you walk around with it out! Pay attention!
Stephen September 30, 2013 at 01:38 PM
Zzzzzzzz..... How exactly is this hyper-local news reporting?
Ravensfan24 September 30, 2013 at 03:11 PM
Wow Jessica, way to blame the victim. So we should just accept this as the new normal and walk around shaking in our boots? How about we stop trying to disarm law abiding citizens and punishing the criminals in a meaningful way. These people know that almost no one in Maryland can conceal carry & that nothing is going to happen to them in our ridiculous "justice" system.You are focusing on the wrong people with your misplaced judgement.
Loomis September 30, 2013 at 11:30 PM
let's just blame the victim...what is more of a shame is that these ANIMALS know their way in and out of jail..and in OMalleyland they get about three hours for stealing.
Jessica October 01, 2013 at 07:24 AM
There are no victims. Only people not paying attention to their surroundings. Period. You don't want to be robbed? Put your stupid phone away and focus. No need to shake in your boots- just be smart. You can conceal and carry mace last time I checked. My son was jumped and had his phone stolen because he wasn't paying attention- had his expensive headphones on and the volume all the way up and his phone out while walking through a rough neighborhood. Live and learn! Criminals aren't going anywhere. Either we adapt and change our behavior OR whine and complain when they rob you while walking around with your expensive equipment out.
Sro Brock October 01, 2013 at 08:43 AM
Public High Schools are the worst location for cell phone theft, and again its due to the opportunity presented to thieves. From personal experience I can state that C.P. thefts in high schools are off the hook. Nearly all resulted from carelessness on the part of the victim (leaving it plugged into a wall and walking away, leaving it in a bathroom, in a classroom, on a lunch table, in a chair...and walking away). Someone should report about CP thefts in schools. I bet they are 10x more prevalent than the community at large.
Danna Walker (Editor) October 01, 2013 at 03:27 PM
This happened in my neighborhood. My neighbor was trying to be nice by pulling out her cell phone to help give directions to someone passing through. Instead, the person grabbed my neighbor's phone and took off. Beware of this tactic!
Jessica October 01, 2013 at 08:01 PM
Thanks for the tip Danna!
Paul Taylor October 02, 2013 at 11:34 AM
The Earbud SNAP is a new tether, storage and deployment accessory for personal hands-free audio earbud use with smartphones, music and other mobile audio and video game devices. SNAP has the exclusive ability to securely and comfortably anchor earbud-wired mobile devices to the device user. SNAP is for sale on Amazon.com All smartphones are sold with wire earbud audio speakers. The SNAP converts your earbud wires into: 1) a leash to prevent device loss and theft, and 2) a catch wire to prevent dropped device impact damage. Go to "Earbud SNAP Demo" YouTube Video -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbkfRzdB-98 U.S. Patent Pending -- All Rights Reserved © Taylor Topline 2013.
mark October 07, 2013 at 03:41 PM
Jessica, you are clueless..everyone teenager has a phone or smart phone..so putting it away doesn't matter..the Slim ball Thugs are still going to jump you regardless..so we should cave to the criminals with your way of thinking? Would you be a Victim if someone punched you and stole your purse? Or would you be careless for not double clutching it under your arm..get a life with your thoughts
mark October 07, 2013 at 03:47 PM
Phone addicted idiots?..how about Purse addicted idiots..Don't carry your purse..its irresponsible..let's give in to criminals who don't want to work..stop protecting your liberal friends Jessica, let Common sense handle it for you
Sro Brock October 08, 2013 at 07:53 AM
I think it's true we should never blame the victim. However most crimes occur due to the opportunity presented to the criminal. Removing the opportunity is a guarantee that the crime will not occur. But our ability to remove the criminal's opportunities is limited because a determined criminal can often overcome our efforts. We are not living in fortresses and most windows are glass. Burglaries will occur. Thefts, Robberies, all of these will keep happening. If your house has a large dog, the burglar will likely go next door. If you are clutching your purse tightly the thief will grab your friend's purse instead. If both women are holding on tightly the thief may turn the event into a robbery and use force or threat of force. Desire and ability are the other two cornerstones, or necessary elements of a crime; the third being opportunity. Desire and ability can mitigate but not completely overcome a lack of opportunity. And we can only do so much to remove that third element.

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