The rise of smartphone and tablet theft, particularly iPhones and iPads, led the NYPD to create a special unit.

Story highlights

Theft of Apple smartphones and tablets inspires special NYPD unit

For about a year, officers have specifically targeted theft of mobile devices

NYPD official says small crime increase in NYC would have dipped without Apple thefts

As New York City thieves steal smartphones and tablets in ever greater numbers, the NYPD has assigned a group of officers to hunt down the devices.

The NYPD launched the team about a year ago “when we saw a spike in (thefts of) Apple products specifically,” Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne said.

An Apple-picking problem on New York City’s streets and subways has worsened in recent years. The overall crime rate in the city increased 3% last year – but “if you subtracted just the increase in Apple product thefts, we would have had an overall decrease in crime in New York,” Browne said.

Generally, the NYPD team’s first step in tracing pilfered gadgets is obtaining the stolen device’s serial number. Then “we supply it to Apple, and we say, when that product is activated, we want to know who it is,” according to Browne.

The tech giant has largely cooperated with the NYPD’s subpoenas. “I would say we’re working with them. They’re not fighting this,” Browne said.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

The NYPD’s detectives have found that stolen smartphones and tablets don’t tend to travel far.

About 75% of them stay in the city of New York, Browne said. And those that cross city limits are still likely to be in the state.

Browne did not quantify how successful the department has been at tracing stolen smartphones and tablets, but he did cite a few cases that had happy endings.

In one, an employee stole three iPads from his workplace, then gave them to two relatives in New York and one in the Dominican Republic. The NYPD was able to return all three to their rightful owners.

Sometimes the trail leads back to the person who swiped the iPhone; other times it leads to an unwitting owner of stolen property.

While the officers on the NYPD’s smartphone squad don’t focus exclusively on Apple products, they do spend most of their time chasing stolen iPhones or iPads, “simply because the number of Apple thefts is a reflection of their general popularity,” Browne said.

Law-enforcement agencies like the NYPD aren’t alone in targeting smartphone and tablet theft. The industry is taking steps to address it, too.

In a letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the wireless industry’s trade association last year released details of a voluntary effort to “help law enforcement deter smartphone theft.”

A major plank of that effort is the creation of a database for smartphones that are reported stolen. Phones on the database, which is scheduled to be up and running at the end of November, would be barred being activated or provided service on an LTE network in the United States.