INVESTIGATORS: Apple picking, global market - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: Apple picking, global market

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Flickr/Creative Commons/Phil Roeder Flickr/Creative Commons/Phil Roeder

It's an oft-talked-about trend, robbers targeting people with smart phones -- and the thefts are taking place all over the metro. From the University of Minnesota to the Mall of America, and big names are becoming victims.

Christmas had just passed and the New Year was fast approaching when a former Minneapolis mayoral candidate took a seat at a table in a coffee shop at the Mall of America without knowing he was being watched.

"My hand was no more than in inch or two from the phone and all of a sudden, somebody just came and snatched it off," Mark Andrew recalled.

At the time, Andrew thought there was no way he'd let some punk pilfer his phone.

"I think a lot of people could see themselves in the same situation," he said.

Andrew gave chase and he was gaining.

"I was just after the kid, and I knew I was going to catch him," he remembered.

Yet, he didn't count on the crook having accomplices.

"I got outside the door and I got jumped from behind," Andrew explained.

Two young women knocked him to the floor, and one is accused of beating him with a club. He left the mall bloodied and bruised.

"Stitches in the head, mild concussion," Andrew said. "I'll lose a permanent tooth."

Although not all are violent, phone thefts are soaring. In fact, cell phone thefts account for 40 percent of all robberies in the nation. It is estimated that 100 smart phones disappear each minute in the U.S -- but where are they going? That depends on who is doing the grabbing.

Surveillance video from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport shows what happens when a smart phone sticking out of a woman's purse falls after she exits the escalator. The tiny white speck on the floor is picked up in seconds by a man who grabs it and takes off running. Later, an ad appears on Craigslist.com.

Under the heading of "Found Gold iPhone 5 at Airport," the poster asks for the last four digits of the owner's phone number and writes, "I expect an award of at least $900 or I'm selling it for way more."

Airport police were able to track down the man seen in the video. He admitted finding the phone, but denied having anything to do with the online listing. Instead, he claimed to have thrown the device away into the garbage.

The suspect was an airport employee prior to the incident, which cost him his security clearance and his job -- but he's not the only worker believed to have picked up a lost device. Video of another theft shows two cleaners walk away from a plane with an iPad that was left onboard. When police interviewed one of the cleaners, they discovered she also had a stolen iPhone she claimed to have purchased at a store in Minneapolis.

When investigators paid a visit to that store with a search warrant, they found lots of electronic gear that had gone missing -- including computers and cell phones -- from various places in the Twin Cities. Police suspect the owner was buying hot phones for as little as $50 and re-selling them for a huge profit.

"When cell phones are being purchased for a low price, being wiped and sold less than 24 hours later for $350, a reasonable person would believe those items were stolen, Dave Karsnia told the Fox 9 Investigators.

The owner of the store said he didn't know he was buying stolen items. In the end, prosecutors reviewed the evidence collected and decided they didn't have enough to file charges.

Deepali Roth owns a clothing store in Edina, and she says her phone was plucked from her while she was working there.

"My phone got stolen one time and my employee's phone got stolen a second time," Roth explained.

In her own theft, Roth says three people came in to Fashionology. While she was waiting on one, the other two snuck behind the counter, grabbed her iPhone 5 and then dashed out the door.

"If I don't have my phone with me -- seriously, I feel handicapped," Roth said.

Fortunately, Roth had an app that can track a lost or stolen phone. A week later, she got a notification that her phone had been located -- in China.

"I can't believe it," she said.

A healthy black market for hot phones is what makes it possible for a phone to travel from Edina to China in a matter of days -- and it's all about the money. An iPhone worth $200 in the U.S. is worth $2,000 in places like Hong Kong.

Federal agents raided a suspected trafficking operation near Detroit, one of the worst cities for smart phone theft. According to investigators, people had been walking into the store with shopping bags full of devices and leaving with as much as $20,000 in cash.

"There's a really well-established network of people who are committing these crimes," said Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell.

In Maplewood, much like everywhere else, there have been plenty of phone thefts. Police were concerned when an automated cash-for-phones machine was placed in the local mall. Schnell said it's been used as a way to unload multiple stolen phones -- but anyone using the kiosk has to provide a name, address, show a valid ID and give a thumb print. That means Maplewood police know exactly who sold stolen phones to the automated teller.

As for Andrew, he's still recovering from the attack at the mall.

"I had a headache for about 10 days, nausea for three," he said.

Yet, if it were to happen again, Andrew says his response would be "the same."

"If we allow those kinds of crimes to happen, the community has lost," he said.

Andrew also got his phone back. It was found in the mall by a passerby and returned to him.

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