Stolen iPhones Used By Police to Entrap Unsuspecting Buyers

Imagine strolling down the main street in town, looking for a place to have lunch. All of a sudden, a man in a baggy sweatshirt and jeans approaches you and flashes the inside of his backpack, which contains four white iPhones, still in their box. He tells you they’re stolen and offers to sell one to you. You’d probably turn him down, right?

Now what if he insisted? Followed you down the block, offered it to you for $20, and told you that he really needed the money for his daughter’s birthday next month? You might feel a little sorry for him — and you might take him up on his offer. Next thing you know, you would be in handcuffs, arrested in a sting operation targeting the fast-growing market for stolen electronics.

Police officers in San Francisco are initiating such sting operations to counter one of the largest stolen iPhone markets in the country. A little less than half of San Francisco’s residents own an iPhone (the largest percentage in any city), and this makes them particularly vulnerable to such thieves. In fact, nearly half of all robberies in the city last year were of smartphones, and authorities have even coined a name for this crime: Apple picking. It’s not hard to see why criminals would choose this tactic: The phones often wind up being sold overseas in the black market, fetching up to $1,000 each, and they can also easily be used to commit identity theft.

Clearly, this is one of San Francisco’s biggest problems, and police have been working to fight it for quite some time. Previously, officers would pretend to be passengers or pedestrians that were careless with their phones, hoping to catch thieves in the act of stealing. But this method yielded almost no results.

Then, police decided to try a different tactic: they posed as sellers of stolen iPhones on the main black-market streets in San Francisco. The idea is that those who attempt to buy stolen phones aren’t just ordinary civilians, but members of small gangs that profit from such trade. By finding and arresting them, the police hoped to “cut the head off the snake.”

Unfortunately, the plan hasn’t worked out quite so well. For one thing, rates of phone robberies and the black market operations have stayed steady and, in some cases, are still increasing.  

But more importantly, many officials and lawyers are worried that such stings are just creating crime, rather than preventing it. By approaching ordinary people walking down the street, police are enticing them to commit a crime when they might not have before: often, the people arrested in these stings have no criminal past. Technically, such actions are called “entrapment” and are illegal, but the bar for proving entrapment is incredibly high. So far in San Francisco, lawsuits claiming entrapment have not managed to convince a judge.

Another problem is that these sting operations require a lot of time and resources from the police department. One sting group requires 11 policemen: one unarmed decoy, one managing the recording, two close-by bodyguards, and more waiting nearby in case the deal turns violent. Critics claim that the costs of these operations far outweigh the benefits and that, considering San Francisco Police Department rates of robbery clearance are lower than comparable cities, these operations are merely used to bump up the department’s statistics and make it look better on paper.

With so many legitimate concerns, alternatives to sting operations are currently being considered. Starting next year, the nation’s major networks have established a system that will blacklist stolen smartphones, denying them access to network connections. But they will still be able to access Wifi and other apps. The next step is for Apple to remotely limit features on stolen phones, but the company has thus far refused to take any stance on the issue, even as the number of murders in phone robberies continues to increase.

In the meantime, sting operations will continue, not just in San Francisco, but in New York City and Washington, D.C. Hopefully it goes without saying, but if anyone approaches you looking to sell stolen wares, walk away quickly.