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Thieves snatch smartphones from people's hands on public transit

LA Kings fans flooded cell phone transmitters Monday night in downtown Los Angeles sending messages about the Kings Stanley Cup victory.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC
LA Kings fans flooded cell phone transmitters Monday night in downtown Los Angeles sending messages about the Kings Stanley Cup victory.

You’re waiting for the bus or the train and maybe you've got 15 minutes to kill. So you whip out your iPhone or Andriod and check Facebook, scroll through your Twitter feed or text a friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with.

We all do it - but to an opportunistic thief, it’s as if we’re waving a couple of hundred-dollar bills in his face.

More and more people are snatching up cell phones, iPads, laptops and other electronic gadgets on Metro buses and trains, turn around and sell it,” said Lt. Matthew Rodriguez with the Sheriff's Department Transit Services Bureau North.

In a Metro blog post, the agency writes, “Trains appear to be the preferred venues for cell phone thefts, perhaps because trains can hold more passengers and buses are manned by bus drivers whose presence may deter some thieves.”

"They snatch them as the doors are closing and the train is moving on away from the station," said Metro rider Jeffrey Linneman. He said he's seen this happen to a woman at the Wilshire/Vermont Red Line station.

Linneman said he once dozed off while riding the Blue Line station about four months ago with his wallet exposed from his backpack but woke up when he felt a man digging into it.

“He just smiled at me and said something like, ‘I saw you sleeping,’” Linneman said.

That’s what cops call opportunity crimes. It seems to happen often on Metro’s Blue and Green light rail lines, Lt. Rodriguez said. He added that more than half the reports of stolen electronic devices and jewelry this year have occurred on those two rail lines.

“I’ve seen everything on the Blue Line,” said Metro rider L.P. Simmons, who often rides the train from Long Beach. Simmons said people have tried to sell him drugs, DVDs, casino chips, candy, water, jewelry and even sex. He'd like to see more of a police presence on board, but Simmons said riders also have to be diligent.

“A lot of people won’t report crime. They’ll just turn their heads and be apathetic,” he said.

Rodriguez said authorities are aware of the vendor problem on the Blue Line, and they've been trying to eliminate it. He said the spike in cell phone thefts has prompted them to increase the security presence on the Blue and Green lines.

Authorities say that if you’re not talking on the phone, resist the urge to toy with it and put it away until you're off the bus or train.

There are apps that can help track your stolen or lost cell phone. Most trains and buses have video cameras on board that could record the crime.

Rodriguez said this is a trend that’s happening across the country in places like Chicago and New York City where more than 40 percent of all robberies involve smartphones. In Washington D.C., thieves steal cell phones in 38 percent of all robberies.

Federal legislation announced in April joins four major cell phone providers with the FCC to create a central database to track stolen devices. The first database is supposed to launch by the end of October.