There’s money in them there mobiles: For manufacturers, for network providers, for content providers, and for the thieves who snatch the handsets and sell them on.
Today’s cellphones, unlike the bricks of old, are typically worth a lot on the black market – moreso the types of phones carried by Mobile World Congress delegates in Barcelona this week.
A “Robbed in Barcelona” collaborator legitimately sold his old iPhone 3GS to a phone shop for parts or resale in December and got €106 (US$142) for it. That’s a lot of money for a 36-month old phone. How much does that make a recently-launched phone worth, for example the LG Prada 3.0? That’d be about €500 (US$650).
For the first 12 hours following the robbery of a mobile phone – or until the victim gets the network provider to take action – the thief will use the phone as if it were his own. He will phone his colleagues, typically to another mobile that has also been stolen (so as not to identify either of them). We’ve seen evidence of multiple phone calls between thief A on mobile A and thief B on mobile B in the first few hours of a stolen phone’s new life. Typically these conversations pertain to further crime.
It’s well known that thieves in Barcelona stalk potential victims by standing in a strategic location, such as at the corner of Carrer Comerç and Carrer Princesa, or at the junction of Placa Espanya and Carrer de Tarragona. There they watch for suitable prey… a guy from Japan with a nice camera bag; or a baseball-cap wearing American wearing shorts too early in the season; or tall blonde Scandinavians with three kids wearing Barcelona jerseys. The scout will take his newly-stolen mobile and phone his colleague who is somewhere in the vicinity. Two or three thieves are dispatched – at least one of which will be on a bicycle – to either front- or back-follow their prey. Tactics employed at this stage will be the crunch, the free hugger, the snatch and grab (no link required), or the Ronaldinho. The Ronaldinho tends to work best if the victim has had a few glasses of wine. The guy who steals the phone or bag will immediately hand it to a colleague who will run with it, or if on a bicycle, cycle away with it into a warren of backstreets.
A recent victim recently received the first itemised phone bill from his just-stolen mobile phone. Within the first hour after the phone’s theft – and this was at about 2am in the morning – his statement shows that the mobile was used every sixty seconds to phone a premium rate phone number in another country. The ruse being that every phone call was costing the victim over €10 (US$13.50), of which we can be sure the thief was pocketing a decent percentage.
If your mobile phone does disappear in Barcelona, it’s likely it’s going to take one of three routes.
1. If it’s a beauty, the thief may opt to keep it for himself if he can unlock/unblock it, or if he is sure it’s not tracking his location, or if he can be sure your in-built camera isn’t taking photos of him while he’s using it. Locals are well-used to seeing the neighbourhood thieves with shiny iPhones, iPads and the likes. Oh, at this point we should say there’s no need to blame the police (much!) as the legal system is incredibly weak.
2. It could end up at the black market at Encants, which is under the circular fly-over system near Barcelona’s Torre Agbar (that beautiful blue and red gerkin-like structure to the north).
3. Finally, the phone is probably already bubble wrapped, packed and on its way in a container to India or Pakistan for resale there. There’s a desire for nice gadgets there. We’ve seen evidence of this recently. Separately, a “Robbed in Barcelona” collaborator told us recently how he was literally begged to sell his month-old Nokia Lumia to a hotel owner in India recently, such a prize was it considered to be.
Fortune Magazine wrote-up a story back in October 2011 saying “smartphones have become a favorite target of thieves who do what the police call a snatch and grab.” The favoured approach in the metro system it said was, “the perp grabs a phone and jumps off the train just as the doors are closing.” It went on to say some networks will only “cancel your SIM card after a phone is reported stolen to protect personal information, but any thief can just slip in a new SIM and resell the phone on the black market.” Other networks will shut down the phone itself remotely, making the phone useless, but who wants their prized phone shut down when there’s a five percent chance they’ll recover it?
Mobile World Congress organisers weren’t the only ones concerned about the promised metro strike this week… the city’s thieves were put out about it too. The metro strike is now off, and it will provide ample opportunity for thieves to pickpocket in a crowded carriage, on a busy escalator or at a ticket machine. A metro strike would have forced thieves onto the streets, where it’s harder to be successful. On the streets, watch for the guy who leaves a note on your table, and the Roma kids who go around looking for directions with an open map, which is momentarily rested on your jacket or tabletop.
Be careful out there!