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When Sunah Yang bought an iPhone for her brother two years ago, she warned him about the white earbuds.
Never wear them at night, she told him. They make you a target for thieves.
“Obviously, he didn’t listen,” she said in a recent interview.
Around midnight on April 19, 2012, Hwangbum Yang, a 26-year-old Korean immigrant and aspiring chef, finished work as a cook at an upscale Manhattan restaurant. He rode the No. 1 train uptown to the Bronx and started walking home in the rain.
He was two blocks from his house when a man holding a gun approached him, according to police. The man -- whom police would later identify as Dominick Davis -- demanded Yang's iPhone. When he refused, Davis shot him once in the chest. Yang died on the sidewalk.
Yang was still wearing the iPhone’s white earbuds when paramedics arrived, investigators told his sister. Davis had left his wallet untouched, but had taken his iPhone. Police later found the phone for sale on Craigslist for $400.
Prosecutors charged Davis and an alleged accomplice, Alejandro Campos, with murder. They have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial in jail on Rikers Island.
Nearly a year after Yang’s death, a cloud of grief still hangs over his family. His father sleeps in his son’s bed. His mother prayed at the scene of the shooting every day for four weeks until her husband asked her to stop. “It will only cause you heartbreak,” he told her.
Hyun Sup Yang attributed her son’s death to the insatiable demand for the world’s most popular phone. “If my son never had an iPhone,” she said in an interview, “he would be alive now.”
Yang’s murder stands as a chilling example of a modern-day crime wave sweeping the country, sometimes with deadly consequences. From New York to San Francisco to Washington, D.C., police have reported a surge in thefts of smartphones and tablet computers -- iPhones and iPads in particular. The spike in robberies has grown so pronounced that police have coined a term for such crimes: Apple picking.
Every day, criminals snatch phones on crowded streets, inside restaurants, and on subways, reselling their stolen wares on the Internet, on street corners and inside local convenience stores. Phone thefts tend to rise right after the release of new Apple products, according to police in New York City.
Apple declined to comment for this story.
The growing street crime is the most visible example of what law enforcement authorities describe as a well-orchestrated underground global industry: Many stolen phones are shipped to distant points on the globe, sold to consumers in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. It is a market now worth some $30 billion a year, according to Lookout, a San Francisco-based mobile security firm.
The global nature of this illicit trade stems in part from measures American wireless carriers have imposed to make it harder to resell stolen phones in the United States, prompting criminals to seek new markets overseas. But it also results from the unique business model used to sell smartphones to American consumers. In the United States, cell phone carriers subsidize the costs of the phones, while in most other countries customers pay full retail price. The same iPhone that Americans can obtain for $250 can fetch as much as $800 on the streets of Hong Kong or Rio de Janeiro. The trade has grown so vast and lucrative that it's attracted organized crime and alleged terrorist organizations, from Mexican drug cartels to the militant group Hezbollah.
About 40 percent of thefts in major American cities now involve cell phones, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which collects statistics from police departments. Washington D.C. reported 54 percent more cell phone robberies in 2011 than in 2007. In New York City, Apple’s iPhone has become “by far” the most popular target, said police spokesman Paul Browne. The city’s overall crime rate increased last year due to a spike in stolen Apple devices.
“Thieves nowadays don’t care about the money in your wallet,” Albie Esparza, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, said in an interview. “They care about your phone because they can turn around and sell it for a quick profit.”
A FINANCIAL INCENTIVE
The street-level cell phone thieves tend to be young men in their teens and early 20s. Some work in teams, handing off stolen phones to partners so they aren’t caught holding hot property. One group of thieves in D.C., who called themselves the “Swisha Splash Boys,” worked by swiping iPhones from Metro riders and running off just as the train doors closed.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier first noticed the problem two years ago. At the time, robberies were rising and thieves were making specific demands. “It was just odd,” she recalled in an interview. “They were passing up other valuables and just asking for phones.”
Last March, Lanier connected this street crime to a distribution network: District police arrested employees at 13 local businesses for allegedly selling stolen iPhones and other electronics. Two years ago, New York police arrested 141 employees of barber shops, newsstands, convenience stores and other businesses for allegedly selling stolen iPhones and iPads.