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Smartphone robberies top crime trends
Ask Burnaby RCMP Chief Supt. Dave Critchley what's changed in crime trends over the past 20 years of policing and he's quick to talk about the advent of smartphones, the Internet and social networking tools.
Smartphones, iPads and tablets didn't exist before.
Now they're the largest growing target for thieves and robbers.
From January to June this year, there were 125 robberies in Burnaby, compared to 157 during the same period in 2012, he said. The reduction was mainly from a drop in robberies of businesses.
Of those, 99 were classified as personal robberies in 2012 and 98 in 2013. The numbers of those cases involving smartphones was also surprisingly consistent— 62 in 2012 and 63 so far this year.
With such electronic devices, "we've created an opportunity for criminals to take advantage of," he said. "It's all about risk and mitigating it."
People using such devices simply aren't as aware as they should be of their surroundings.
"It's as simple as walking down the street looking at your cellphone, walking into a lamppost or into traffic," he said. Apart from the obvious potential for injury, such behaviour helps advertise the fact you have these valuables on you.
All it takes is for someone to con a person into handing the smartphone over, by saying they need to make an emergency call, for instance, or using violence and grabbing it out of people's hands.
Education is a huge part of policing these days, Critchley said.
"It amazes me when I see somebody go to a coffee shop and get all set up [at a table] with their iPad, then leave it to go to the counter to get a coffee. You're taking a huge risk, you're providing someone an opportunity to steal something."
He said it's behaviour he often sees with younger folks.
"There's a naive belief your belongings will be where you leave them."
In addition to education, RCMP and other police agencies have been working with industry to establish a new system, effective Sept. 30, which would make stolen smartphones more difficult for criminals to sell.
Basically, a victim of such theft would report their smartphone stolen to their cellphone carrier which would then put the registration number on a blacklist. No carrier in Canada, nor a growing list of carriers in other countries, will activate a phone on the blacklist, making them less attractive to potential buyers.
The advent of technology has also meant the Burnaby RCMP can utilize the skills of crime analysts who can alert officers to patterns in crimes—a rash of thefts from vehicles in a certain area where the culprits are using the same methods, for example—that they can then investigate, sometimes identifying prolific offenders and taking them off the street.
And while social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter can help police quickly disseminate information, such as when they're searching for a suspect or a missing person, they also create new opportunities for criminals.
Critchley shakes his head while recounting stories of people announcing to the world on Facebook that they're heading out of town for a two-week Mexican vacation, giving thieves a perfect window to break into their homes.
Then there are the Internet scams and identity thefts. "Fraud is nothing new, it's as old as time itself."
Social networks also make it far easier to sell stolen property. When Critchley started out as a police officer 32 years ago, "you had people who specialized in fencing stolen property.
"Now with social media you can go on a couple of different sites and you can facilitate much easier the sale. People [buying from such sites] have to be aware of that. You can't be willfully blind."
One of the areas police are perhaps spending more time on now than in decades past is in working with community resources to address the underlying causes of crime, whether it's referring people to addictions or mental health services or identifying a youth at risk and steering them towards more positive activities.
While what they steal and the methods they use may change, ultimately the reasons behind criminals' behaviour don't really change over the years, Critchley said. Often it's a result of addictions, trying to survive on the street or to support a criminal lifestyle.
"Breaking into a house 30 years ago to get property you can sell, it's perhaps different property now but they're still breaking into houses."
Stopping cellphone thieves
As of Sept. 30, it will be more difficult to sell stolen cellphones.
The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association and its wireless carrier members have started a national blacklist of smartphone and other wireless devices.
Anyone who has such a device lost or stolen needs to report it to their carrier to have its International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number placed on the blacklist so that no carrier in Canada will activate it for a new user, making them less desirable for criminals.
For someone buying a used device, they can visit ProtectYourData.ca beforehand to check whether its IMEI number is on the blacklist.