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My smartphone was taken from my hand on the SkyTrain

DH Vancouver Staff Oct 28, 2013 7:54 am

Transit is that weird lag in time, in between where you came from and where you’re going. Like one big sociological experiment, dozens of strangers hole up in an enclosed environment, and behave in accordance to some unspoken, unwritten code of conduct, save occasionally the intoxicated rogue that we pretend isn’t there, like the apparition from Ghost.

Oddly enough, surrounded by strangers, no one has their guard up. We relinquished that primal instinct of wariness long ago and embraced being civilized. This has brewed a comfort-level our culture has become steeped in. You’re on the train, but you couldn’t be further away. You’re diligently combining special sweets to crush candy, or lost in a plot, or spinning in front of thousands of partyers about to cue the ill-est drop in the history of EDM. This is probably why the number one crime on SkyTrain is theft of electronic devices.

There are in excess of 700 theft cases outstanding as of last June, according to Anne Drennan, media advisor for Transit Police. This year, 148 incidents involved violence and 215 last year – these numbers are not limited to SkyTrain, they include coffee shops, schools, gyms and vehicles.

I watch riders with particular interest and picture myself walking past, plucking their darling smartphone, eReader or laptop from their sleepy grasp and slipping through the closing doors before their brain could fully assess what had just happened. I’m not a thief. This is what happened to me.

The Vancouver Police Department, in conjunction with Transit Police and TransLink, recently launched an awareness campaign to drill it into Metro Vancouverites that this is happening. Peel your pupils off of your smartphone and notice the posters plastered around the city, on buses, bus shelters, trains and platforms. Your awareness is the only real mode of defence in cogging this loosely organized system of electronic device theft.

Seated in an Expo Line style car where the seats in the centre face each other, I was perched next to the door – this area is ripe for theft – and lazily combing through Twitter updates. The train made its slow and deliberate entrance into Nanaimo station. Compelled by a presence walking by, I glanced up. She was a small thing, not much more petite than I, with hard black eyeliner and fake eyelashes – like bat wings. A hood-rat from the burbs, I calculated. While the train paused, I scoped out the slight change in scenery as the girl stood opposite my gaze, in front of the door. The closing door bell sounded and my iPhone gingerly lifted itself out of my delicate grip. I peered down at my empty palm to confirm that, indeed, my phone was not there. Stunned, I twisted around to the window and watched the girl gallop down the platform as the train pulled away.

The VPD’s awareness campaign states that smartphones are like cash and should be treated as such. Their slogan “If you don’t watch your phone, thieves will,” is apt. Smartphones are a hot commodity for their value and the value of the information stored in them. For example, the Facebook app provides your full name, birthday and your physical makeup via photos. If you bank online with your phone, your banking info and address are accessible if left open at the time it was stolen. Your email provides loads of information, such as vehicle insurance and medical records. With a simple tap from a stranger’s finger, your identity is ready to counterfeit. Identify theft via information lifted off electronic devices is not unusual and has happened, according to Drennan.

How to thwart the bad guys besides bearing shifty eyes all the time? The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association launched a device verification process for users on any Canadian network. A reported stolen phone will make it on their ‘blacklist’ which then renders that stolen phone useless, even if a new SIM card is inserted. How do you get your phone onto the blacklist? For starters, follow these steps right now while you still have your phone. Seriously, RIGHT NOW:

On your smartphone, dial *#06#. That’s ‘star, pound, zero, six, pound’ and a 15-digit number will automatically appear on your screen. This is your International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI).

Write this number down and keep it handy.

In the event your phone is lifted, notify your service provider and give them the 15-digit IMEI number.

Your stolen phone will then be as effective as an ugly paperweight.

The responding Transit Police officer on my case was diligent in gathering information and kept me in the loop on any leads. The images from SkyTrain’s CCTV revealed that the girl had been on the train for a while with two young men. They had my number. They disembarked at Nanaimo station and left without a trace. The images on CCTV were not enough to identify the girl and with no other avenues to left to pursue, my case is inactive until another lead materializes, like so many others. Viewing the gritty SkyTrain CCTV images on TV, it’s understandable why a clear picture was not available of the trio. My iPhone could have taken a better quality video. The TransLink media team is mediocre, at best, when it comes to answering the media’s questions about their last CCTV upgrade.

Transit police have gathered that there are loosely formed groups of youth who commit these crimes. They steal phones, sell them to another level, which is then sold to another level. So, there is a profit down the line.

Quite often stolen phones are sold on sites like Craigslist.

“That is another thing that we do investigatively, we monitor media as much as we can to see if there are people on websites. We can sometimes backtrack from there,” said Drennan.

“We do have suspects among these groups, we are able to target a number of these people. And we do have some success. We’ve been able to catch these people either in the act or through information we’ve been able to gather through witnesses. Catching them is extremely difficult though because these people are very quick and the victims are very shocked.”

When my phone was taken, it felt like I lost – at life. Like, if these were the cave days and we were in constant survival mode, I’d have been bonked on the head with a branch and taken to live with another clan.

Don’t get outsmarted.

DH Vancouver Staff
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