Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We need to talk -- about smartphone theft

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Here's a bulletin for you.

Winnipeg has a crime problem.

I mean a new kind of crime problem, or maybe it's just an old one we didn't know we had.

You might remember my column from last summer about the 19-year-old University of Manitoba student who was taking Transit home from work when another young passenger asked if he could borrow her cellphone to make a call -- then he bolted from the bus, with her suddenly hot iPhone 4 in his own hot little hand.

At the time, I asked police if this kind of cellphone theft on buses was a trend and police said not that they knew of.

Then a month later, there was a Winnipeg police release about a young man who asked another young man if he could borrow his cellular phone. And when he refused, the other guy stabbed him. About the same time, a middle-aged woman who read my initial column emailed to say she was nearly robbed of her cellphone on a Transit bus.

And this week, the father of a 16-year-old south St. Vital girl said she was riding home on the bus late last month when she had her iPhone ripped right out of her hands by another girl. The young robbery victim tried to get it back, but the other girl ended up pulling her right off the bus before getting away with the cellphone.

His teenage daughter is still traumatized nearly two weeks later.

"She won't ride that bus anymore," he said.

How bad is this so-called iCrime getting? Actually, I can't tell you how serious a problem it is in Winnipeg because police don't keep stats on it and apparently,Transit doesn't track it either.

I can tell you this, though.

It's really bad elsewhere. And getting worse.

So much so that this week the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission demanded the wireless industry set up a national registry of stolen smartphones and tablets so the pricey technology can be deactivated after a robbery, a move that would make iCrime less attractive.

And if the industry doesn't comply?

The CRTC said it would look at using its regulatory muscle to force the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association to do the right thing for consumers. That's how concerned the CRTC is about the wireless industry's apparent lack of concern.

So how concerned should we be in Winnipeg?

First, let me point you to Toronto and Vancouver.

The Globe and Mail this week quoted a Toronto city councillor who said there were 1,800 cellphone robberies in that city last year and estimates from Vancouver that cellphone theft there was up as much as 37 per cent between 2010 and 2011.

It appears to be even worse in the United States. The Globe referred to estimates from the Federal Communications Commission that suggest one in every three robberies in the U.S. involves the theft of a mobile phone.

Even the Wall Street Journal has warned about the explosive growth in iCrime, pointing to public transit riders as being the prime targets. New York City's police commissioner, Ray Kelly, told CNN last summer 40 per cent of thefts there involve Apple gadgets.

But we were wondering about Winnipeg, weren't we?

Wednesday, I asked Winnipeg police if they have ever issued a warning about cellphone robbery. I inquired because I had asked police before if there was a trend of that kind of crime on Transit buses here, without getting a definitive response. But also because of a sentence in this week's Globe and Mail story on the subject.

"Police have been increasingly warning about a surge of violent robberies involving cellphones in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver."

What I'm wondering is, if other police services are warning their citizens, why haven't I heard from Winnipeg's? Even if our police don't keep specific stats on cellphone and tablet robbery, one would think they would at least alert us about a North American trend.

So far as I know, there has been no such alert or advisory issued, and even if there has been, obviously it wasn't loud enough. So please permit me to do it for the police and more importantly, for you.

Use your built-in warning system about people around you when you pull out your cellphone. Don't loan your phone to a stranger and try not to sit near exits on buses that make you and your phone an easier target.

Or think of it this way: Don't let some dummy steal your smartphone.

End of bulletin.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2012 B1

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