Oct. 19, 2007 at 8:00 AM ET
There's an iCrime wave, a new report suggests. America is suffering a surprising resurgence in muggings, which increased more than 7 percent last year, the FBI says. The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, thinks it knows why: iPods.
The little gadgets are the perfect target for snatch-and-grab thieves who find a zoned-out music lover to target, easily identifiable by those signature white ear bud headphones. And the devices are also very easy to fence after being wiped clean, shoved into stolen iPod boxes and sold in small electronics stores.
I've never been shy about blaming Apple for its shortcomings, but even I was skeptical about the report, which appeared anecdotal and oversimplified. Still, author John Roman offers some pretty powerful anecdotes – there has been a documented iPod crime wave in the New York City subway system, for example.
But what I think readers need to understand about the report, and about the phenomenon, is this: there truly is a gadget crime wave going on right now. GPS gadgets, cell phones, iPods all are easy marks for criminals. In fact, according to some in law enforcement, stolen gadgets are now a bigger problem than stolen cars.
The loss of a gadget means more than the out-of-pocket cost. Think about what a bad guy could glean from your Blackberry or PocketPC. Getting these gadgets back is virtually impossible, though there are some fledgling initiatives on that front, which we'll get to in a second. But the headache of losing the item, combined with the potential nightmare of losing the data, should have you worried.
First, the iPod wave
Before you dismiss the iCrime wave theory (Acrobat required), consider other mini-crime waves you've heard about, like the 8-ball jacket craze in East Coast cities during the 1980s, or the Jordan sneaker craze about the same time. Both were blamed for upticks in overall crime. Then consider this: Way back in 2005, New York City police held a press conference warning subway riders about the perils of iPod-wearing. The agency said iPod thefts that year had radically altered overall crime data for the city's subways. Felonies were up in the first half of the year by 18 percent -- but excluding iPod thefts, overall crime was actually down 3 percent.
Such detailed data isn't available for the rest of the country, so it's impossible to say if iPods are fueling the nationwide increase in robberies, commonly called muggings. Still, says Roman, there are hints.
"There is a compelling correlation between when iPod sales took off and when the crime rate changed," he said.
An Apple official declined to comment.
If you talk to local police, they will tell you that gadget theft is a much bigger problem than even a 7 percent rise in robberies would indicate, in part because many gadget thefts aren't reported.
"People have just grown accustomed to it. It's the norm, now," says Boston police officer Tom Shea. College students, in particular, are notorious for not reporting stolen iPods.
Not just iPods, all gadgets
Shea is among those who think iPods are only the tip of the gadget theft crisis.
Paramus, N.J., Police Chief Fred Corrubia, who watches over a New York City suburb jam-packed with shopping malls, says theft of GPS gadgets from cars has kept his officers busy recently.
"We were getting killed by this," Corrubia said earlier this year. National data backs up his claim. From 2000-2004, the most recent data available, gadget theft from cars was up 30 percent, according to the FBI, while auto theft was essentially flat.
Gadgets are a good target for criminals for one reason; they are easy to sell.
Airport parking lots in Boston are a breeding ground for GPS theft, Shea said.
"You have crack-heads breaking into cars and selling them to cab drivers at airports," he said. Some of the $800 gadgets get dumped for as little as $50.
Cell phone thefts are also a growing problem, Shea said. Earlier this month, we reported on consumer frustration with cell phone firms, which are not as helpful as they could be when handsets are stolen
There are attempts to stem the tide of stolen gadgets, including some innovative technology solutions. None has made a serious dent in the problem, but some sound promising.
Shea has started a service called JustStolen.net, which allows victims to register their lost loot in a nationwide database accessible to law enforcement officials. Should a stolen item show up in a cache of gadgets recovered by police, it can be returned to the rightful owner. So far, hundreds of thousands of stolen items are listed on the site. Shea said has no idea how many have been returned to their owners, as agencies can contact victims directly without notifying him.
GadgetTrak, a small Portland company, has a service that can be installed on almost any USB-enabled device which will make a stolen gadget "phone home" as soon as it is connected to a computer with Internet access. Registered devices, when told to do so, will send the user's IP address, computer name and other identifying information to GadgetTrak, which then provides the data to the victim so it can be shared with police. The service costs $12.95 a year.
Owner Ken Westin said he's recovered four iPods since the service launched earlier this year. In three of the four cases, the music player was stolen from a student by a student.
There also are lower-tech services, like subscription product StuffBak, which provides users with "reward for return" stickers they can place on their gadgets. Good Samaritans (or thieves, for that matter) can call a single phone number and arrange to return an item through StuffBak. USAToday reporter Edward Baig had a positive experience with StuffBak several years ago, but obviously the service hasn't done much to stop criminals.
In truth, the only way to blunt the gadget crime wave is decisive action by the manufacturers, something we've yet to see. Gadget makers have nibbled around the edges of the crime problem. Garmin, for example, now allows GPS users to add PIN protection to their units. That doesn't really stop theft, though. It only prevents the criminal from using the gadget after it's stolen.
Earlier this year, Dateline NBC did an incisive investigation into iPod theft.
Producers added software to an iPod that allowed them to track a gadget through the fencing process, eventually enabling reporter Chris Hanson to interview people who bought stolen iPods. The question hanging over the project was this: Why isn't Apple doing something similar? If every iPod told on its thief, or at least became unusable after it was registered as having been stolen, the market for hot iPods would dry up. So would iPod theft. Apple hasn't made any motions toward such a process.
The same goes for cell phone makers, who could figure out how to completely disable stolen handsets. Right now, all they do is disable accounts connected to stolen phones, which can often be reprogrammed and fenced. The same also goes for digital cameras, GPS gadgets, and nearly anything that ever needs an Internet connection.
"The way you get to the root of the problem is to kill the service," Shea says. "But that's not happening now."
I hope by now you are wondering why gadget makers would do this: After all, what is their financial motivation? What happens after you iPod or GPS is stolen? You buy another one. Without additional pressure from somewhere else (Congress? Users?), lack of a profit motive means nothing will change.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
For now, there are ways you can decrease the odds you'll be a victim. Just like parking your car under a streetlight and locking the doors, you should always think about where you keep your gadgets at night.
• Never leave obvious signs of a tech-haul in your car, like a GPS mount on the windshield or a charger in the cigarette lighter. In a high-prowl area of Washington D.C., some residents have taken to emptying out their glove boxes and leaving the doors open to show would-be criminals that their car isn't worth raiding.
• This might seem tedious, but it is worthwhile to take an inventory of all the gadgets in your life. Write down serial numbers. That's the only way you'll have a prayer of getting your gadgets back if they are stolen. Some police departments will refuse to take reports without them. And while we're at it, always file a police report. Otherwise, we'll never get an idea how big the gadget theft problem is.
• Also tedious but worth it: adding password protection to your gadgets, particularly PocketPCs, Blackberries and anything else with valuable personal information. If your gadget is stolen, you'll wish you did. When you are feeling lazy about it, just think about some criminal (or some eBay buyer) reading all your e-mail and weeding through all your contacts.
• Finally, for high-end cell phone users, consider buying optional insurance. Generally, handset insurance is a bad deal, because of high deductibles and the frequent low quality of replacements. But if you're talking about a $600 phone, a $7 a month insurance plan isn't such a bad buy.