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Invasion of the iPod Snatchers

Times Staff Writers

Last Christmas, iPod sales drove a record-breaking season for online merchants. Now, the music player is contributing to an unexpected rise in robberies across Los Angeles.

Robberies of iPods, top-of-the-line cellphones and other gear are up 34% so far this year, accounting for about 1,700 of the city’s 8,000 total robberies.

Authorities say that many of the cases involve simple strong-arm street robberies in which students walking to school or commuters waiting for buses are confronted and forced to give up their electronic devices, which can be worth $500 or more.

Los Angeles Police Department officials said victims and suspects tend to be young, with the majority of suspects between 18 and 25.

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“No one used to report when their lunch money got taken, but if a child comes home without their cellphone or iPod, the family may report it,” LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said. “iPods and their clones are becoming a highly desirable item among criminals. They are easy to sell.”

Authorities said they began to see a sharp rise in electronics thefts on and around local campuses during the holiday season, when iPods and Razr phones became popular teen stocking stuffers. The Los Angeles Unified School District recorded 141 iPod thefts over the last school year, compared with 41 the year before, district police Lt. William Tant said.

Authorities believe that the numbers are actually higher because many students don’t report the crimes.

In just a few months, detectives in Northeast Los Angeles have noticed a jump in iPod robberies, following an increasingly common pattern.

“The victims are younger children, and getting younger by the week,” Lt. Steve Flores, who polices the Silver Lake, Highland Park and Eagle Rock areas. “Usually they are walking home. Someone approaches them. Usually they don’t have a weapon. They just bully them into giving it up.”

Jose Pleitez, who attends Berendo Middle School in the Pico-Union district, said he has had nearly $600 worth of gadgets taken from him in the last year.

Recently, two teenage boys approached him on the street and asked him what time it was. Before he knew it, they grabbed his Nextel I860 camera phone and ran off.

“I went straight to my parents,” he said.

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Pleitez said he had two iPods stolen before then, one from his locker.

Orson Newstat, 18, was lying on a bench at Marshall High School when a young man pulled his iPod out of his hand and ran.

“It probably wasn’t a good idea, but I took off after him,” he said. “He finally threw it in some grass.”

Newstat said the theft was part of a rash of electronics thefts that prompted school officials to encourage students to leave the devices at home.

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“I was trying to be careful with it,” he said. “I was listening to music when it happened.”

Zoe Broder, a 16-year-old Santa Monica High School student, said three iPods have been stolen from her in the last year.

In January, two young men approached her as she was waiting for a bus across from campus, ripped off her ear buds and fled with the 30 gigabyte iPod, which retails for about $300.

“I was kind of shocked at first, then angry,” said Broder, who is entering her junior year. “It happens a lot more than people even know. A lot of people don’t bother reporting it because they figure it’s long gone.”

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A few months before, someone lifted an iPod from her backpack during Spanish class -- the second time that had happened.

Though officials believe that most personal electronics robberies are the work of small-time crooks, they have noticed some organized bands.

Earlier this year, a group of thieves roamed throughout the USC neighborhood, stopping people with the telltale white ear buds and demanding that they hand the music devices over.

Last summer, a man stole 12,000 iPods worth $2 million from a Los Angeles freight business.

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Police said they broke up a highly sophisticated ring this spring that allegedly sent out methamphetamine addicts to steal phones and other electronic devices from workers at downtown office buildings. The ring allegedly used several rooms at the New Otani Hotel in Little Tokyo as their base of operations, said Capt. Andrew Smith of LAPD’s Central Division.

When the group was captured, “they had tons of stolen upscale cellphones and other electronics,” Smith said.

On Tuesday, LAPD detectives announced the arrests of four suspects -- including two teenagers -- who are believed to be responsible for taking $30,000 worth of electronics in 17 robberies of electronics stores, primarily on the Westside.

Robberies citywide are up about 7% so far this year, with the San Fernando Valley leading the way with a 15% increase (about 48% in the affluent West Valley). Robberies mark the one uptick in a 2006 that so far has seen declines in both property and violent crimes.

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The city has been hit by a series of takeover robberies in which masked bandits take cash from restaurants and their customers. But officials said they also believed that the numbers rose because of the rash of electronics thefts.

The so-called “iPod effect” was first felt last year in London and New York, two places where the music devices are popular among subway commuters.

In New York, police attributed a nearly 10% increase in robberies in the subway system to thefts of iPods and similar devices.

“If you are talking iPods, they are perfect examples of what you’d want to steal ... light, portable, abundant, expensive and in demand,” said George E. Tita, a UC Irvine assistant professor of criminology.

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Tita said robbers have an advantage because iPod users often tune out their surroundings. “As I tell my students, when you’re wearing it, the thief doesn’t have to worry about sneaking up on you quietly!”

He and others said the robberies could be reduced if “owner-specific” technology could be employed that would allow owners to create passwords needed to use the devices.

In the meantime, LAPD officials are urging personal electronics users -- particularly students -- to be careful.

“We need to get the kids to not carry cellphones and iPods or not carry them so conspicuously,” LAPD Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger said.

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In New York, some subway riders invented novel methods of concealing iPods. Some purchased cheap headphones to avoid notice. Others have bought clothing with special pouches to hide the devices or even place the iPods in emptied-out soft drink cans.

Broder said the best advice is to leave expensive electronics home.

“Just don’t bring it to school if you don’t want it stolen because for half the people who do, it ends up gone,” she said.

Times staff writer Sharon Bernstein contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Electronic booty

There has been a sharp increase in reported robberies of personal electronic devices on the streets of Los Angeles.

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Street robberies

Cellphones

2005*: 1,160

2006*: 1,490

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iPods and other devices

2005*: 108

2006*: 208

*Through Aug. 5, 2005, and through Aug. 6, 2006.

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Sources: LAPD, Graphics reporting by Andrew Blankstein

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Anti-theft tips

Here are some measures to help you protect your personal electronic items:

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Be alert when listening to music in public areas. Some robbers use the fact that listeners are “zoned out” to their surroundings as an advantage.

* Consider changing the type of earpiece when in public places. The telltale white earpiece of the iPod can tantalize robbers.

* Wear the machines inside your clothes, so they are not conspicuous.

* If you go to a school where personal electronics thefts have been a problem, consider leaving those items at home.

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Source: Times reporting

Los Angeles Times


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