Rochester, N.Y. – Michael Bernola is on his third cell phone. The first one was stolen on the bus as he turned away. The second one was stolen when he lent it to someone who asked to make call and ran off.
“I almost want to give up on modern technology,” Bernola said.
A store clerk at Boost Mobile on West Main St. said people come into his store four to five times a day asking to get phones activated. Peter Rosa said his company doesn’t allow him to turn on customer-supplied devices.
Cell phone thefts are frustrating police departments across the country. Rochester police took in more than 1,300 cell phone theft reports in 2012, up 10 percent from the previous year. Some of those cell phone thefts included store break-ins or gunpoint robberies.
“Before we come up with solutions, we really have to know and understand the problem better,” said Deputy Chief Mike Wood of the Rochester Police Department. “We need to understand the market.”
Police might want to visit Sidney. He agreed to talk to us only if we did not identify his store or use his last name.
Sidney said he can activate just about any phone. If a phone has been reported stolen to one carrier, it can often be activated on another carrier by altering the phone’s software in a process known as “unlocking.” Sidney does not ask if phones are stolen.
“That’s not my job. That’s someone’s private business. Someone is going to feel insulted,” he said.
Sidney said phones are currency on the street. When police find stolen phones, they’ve often been sold many times over, making it tough to find the culprit.
“Sometimes people don’t care if they can turn it on. They keep passing the phone to someone else,” he said. Sidney eventually the iPhone ends up in the hands of someone who knows how to “jailbreak” the device, allowing it to be activated here or overseas.
“The only way people will stop stealing phones is by the phone companies, AT&T, T-Mobile, come up with a system can block the phone once the phone is reported stolen,” Sidney said. “No company can activate it.”
The major cell phone carriers did agree to implement a nationwide database of stolen phones, which will be complete by the end of the year. But it relies on operators to check phones against the database. And it assumes cell phone serial numbers won’t be illegally changed.
“There’s no concrete way,” said Sidney.