May 13, 2013 at 3:53 PM ET
Hwangbum Yang was only a few blocks from home in the Bronx, returning after his shift as a cook, when the attack happened: A man with a gun demanded Yang's iPhone, and when he refused to hand it over, the 26-year-old was shot dead.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said Monday that tragic case and others involving "Apple picking" — incidents where iPhones and other desirable tech gadgets are taken violently from their owners — needs to stop, and is asking phone makers Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft to help. The four companies, he said, "together account for at least 90 percent of U.S. smartphone sales."
He wants the companies to help "identify solutions that could minimize the economic incentives for theft." Some of those might include making stolen phones harder to re-sell or making stolen phones easier to track and identify.
"The companies that dominate this industry have a responsibility to their customers to fulfill their promises to ensure safety and security," Schneiderman said in a statement. "This is a multi-billion dollar industry that produces some of the most popular and technologically advanced consumer electronic products in the world. Surely we can work together to find solutions that lead to a reduction in violent street crime targeting consumers."
In New York City, the attorney general said, "theft of Apple products has driven much of the increase in the theft of electronics." Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 23, 2012, there were 11,447 cases of stolen “iDevices” (iPhones and other iOS devices)" reported to the NYPD, an increase of 3,280 reports over 2011.
"The problem, however, is not limited to Apple," Schneiderman said. "A 2011 NYPD analysis found that companies other than Apple manufactured roughly 30 percent of all electronic devices stolen on subways and buses."
New York is hardly alone in facing the problem, although it may be the poster child for it.
In San Francisco, where half the robberies were phone-related in 2012, District Attorney George Gascon is also asking major companies in Silicon Valley to create new technology such as a "kill switch" to permanently and quickly disable stolen smart phones, making them worthless to thieves, according to a recent Associated Press report.
"We know that the technology can be developed to prevent this," Gascon told the AP. "This is more about social responsibility than economic gain."
In Washington D.C., in 2012, more than 40 percent of robberies in 2012 involved cellphones, said the police chief there.
NBC News contacted Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft about Schneiderman's letter. Google did not respond specifically with comments about the letter, but said in an emailed statement to NBC News the company encourages "smartphone users to lock their device with a PIN or pattern and set their device to automatically lock when not in use."
Google also encouraged Android phone users to learn more about keeping devices "safe and secure" by checking Google's "Good to Know" site, which has security tips.
When we hear back from the other companies, we will update this post.
Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, said in a statement to NBC News that it and member companies, including carriers as well as phone makers, "have been hard at work over the last year to help law enforcement with its stolen phone problem," trying to develop a "multifaceted approach to dry up the aftermarket for stolen phones."
Part of that effort, he said, means creating an "integrated database that is designed to prevent stolen phones from being reactivated. As more countries and more carriers around the world participate in the database, criminals will have fewer and fewer outlets for their stolen devices."
Schneiderman said "in too many cases" of "Apple picking," the "incidents turn violent." Among them:
Meanwhile, two men are in jail awaiting trial for the murder of Yang, who lost his life in the April 2012 iPhone robbery. The men have pleaded not guilty.