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Testing cell networks across America: Phone crime is real

Gabe Scelta | May 17, 2013
On a sweltering spring day in southwest Dallas I was standing outside my car, parked on a flat and near-empty stretch of urban road. The sun was quickly drying the cars coming out of the car wash across the street and I was playing with the OpenSignal app on my tester phones. Seemingly out of nowhere an old man was standing behind me. He looked like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, but on a very bad day.

Welcome to the outside, I said
Back to Morgan Freeman. He shook my hand and went on to tell me about how he was just released from jail after 11 years. "Welcome to the outside," I said. I was rather proud of myself for that. Who knew watching television cop dramas would be so linguistically useful? But then he went into detail. He told me that he was in there for murdering his sister in-law with a Louisville Slugger. He seemed proud that he was man enough to not resort to gun or knife violence and described the situation in detail. He was clearly gauging my reaction.

I went on pressing buttons on the phones and pretended to be interested in the megabytes and kilobytes and downloads and uploads and not wanting to hide under the nearest available rock. From the corner of my eye, I saw him fish around in his pocket for something and then possibly decide I wasn't worth the effort. He asked me for some change. I pretended to check my pockets and told him I didn't have any. "I'm just out here on a job, I don't even have my wallet with me, man," I said. I went back to staring at the phones. I realized that I was a terrible liar and that he could easily see the outline of my wallet in my back pocket.

When I looked up again he was gone. My wallet was still there, all the equipment was still there and there was no Morgan Freeman coming at me from behind the car with a baseball bat. I finished up as quickly as possible and got the hell out of there. It was my last stop of the day and I was driving to Houston. I would be lying if I told you I did not check the back seat at least twelve times during that four hour drive because I was totally spooked.

Phone thefts becoming a 'thing'
I'm not sure why he decided I wasn't worth messing with, but it probably was just a matter of chance. Thefts and assaults involving mobile phones are rising. This map of mobile phone thefts in San Francisco should give you an idea of what we are talking about (put together by the folks at InfoWorld and powered by Leaflet and OpenStreetMap using data from SFPD -- yay open data!).

Anecdotally I've also noticed more brand recognition for iPhones, over the Samsung Note II's that I'm carrying. For a while I had an apple sticker on the front of my carrying case, but took it off when I realized it might be making me a target. At the Stonestown Galleria in San Francisco, I saw a teenage boy sprint past a table in the food court, swipe an older man's iPhone off the table as he watched a movie, and run swiftly toward the exit. It happened in an instant. The kid was tackled by mall security before he reached the outer exit, the food court erupted in cheers and hopefully the mall cop got a raise.

 

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