A smartphone may only cost $200 in America, but can go for $2,000 overseas. Police say that's the driving force and motivation behind the smartphone theft epidemic. The ABC7 I-Team went on an exclusive ride-along with police as they tackled the problem.
Chicago police detectives are on the hunt for potentially stolen smartphones in independent cell phone stores, like ABC Choice in the West Englewood neighborhood. The store received five citations last week for not having a resale license and not having the proper paperwork to go with the used phones, and police say one phone ended up being a stolen one.
"When we have stores like this willing to buy anything from anyone off the street, that fuels the fire," said Sgt. Edward Wodnicki, Chicago Police Department. Kevin Baker, a Chicago college student, was shot and killed over a smartphone last month. Since the beginning of this year, Chicago police say that almost 30 suspects were charged in phone thefts.
"I set my phone down on my lap to grab my bag. He ran past and snatched my phone," said Maurice Taylor, theft victim.
Taylor says his Galaxy 3 was gone in an instant when he was riding the Green Line in May. Gregory Taylor, 19, was charged. The public defender's office says he pleaded guilty to six cases associated with smartphone thefts and is now in prison, and most of Gregory Taylor's smartphone swiping was on the train.
"If you don't look at it for a second it can be gone like that," said Myles Silk, theft victim.
Someone snagged Silk's smartphone when he set it down on a snack bar counter.
Sgt. Wodnicki said there are large rings of crooks selling phones to middle men, or smaller, independent, cell phone stores. In most cases, a buyer resells and ships the phones overseas. Ninety percent of the time, they're headed to Hong Kong -- where your $200 smart phone can sell for a shocking $2,000.
"Primarily what we are seeing here in Chicago is that they are going to Hong Kong because from that location they can sell these phones to specific markets where the phone has the most value," said Sgt. Wodnicki.
But if you act fast with one of several tracking apps, there's hope. You may know about the apps to track your phone, but there are new ones which can remotely take a picture of person, the thief who has your phone.
Police also say that stolen smartphones are quickly being sold online.
"I would caution one on purchasing a phone from eBay or Craigslist," said Sgt. Wodnicki.
Once a phone is reported stolen, it usually can't be activated in the U.S. and is blacklisted. So if you are buying a used one, you should first ask the seller for the phone's IMEI (or International Mobile Equipment Identifier) number. It's usually in the phone's settings. Then ask police or your mobile carrier if the phone is on that stolen phone list.
"There are certain countries that don't subscribe to that list, so you steal a bunch of phones in the U.S. and take them out there. They are good as gold," said Sgt. Wodnicki.
And police also say some thieves are bringing stolen phones to stores which provide "unlocking services." Unlocking a phone can enable it to be used on several different carriers, making it easier to sell.
ABC7's Jason Knowles: "I could get a stolen phone and bring it in here and get it unlocked before it was reported."
"Before it was reported, we would have no way to know if it was reported or not," said Tom Porder, store manager.
In many cases, unlocking a phone is illegal, but sometimes phones are legally unlocked so the owners can switch carriers.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan and lawmakers hope they can stop smartphone theft by forcing the industry to add a remote "kill switch" to all phones, making them useless anywhere.
Tips for buying a used phone:
-Call your local police station and ask them to run IMEI number
-Call your carrier and have them check the IMEI number