All aboard, and hold onto your phones

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2011 - 9:47 AM

Keep a firm grip on your phones. Thieves are swiping them out of the hands of transit riders.

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Ruben Burga, right, of Montreal, said he isn’t concerned about phone theft. “I travel all over the world, and the first thing I do is protect my phone.”

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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A spike in snatch-and-run thefts of smartphones on the Hiawatha light-rail line has prompted transit officials to issue unusual recorded warnings at station platforms.

"Attention, please," say the announcements that began last week. "Be aware that thieves are stealing cellphones and mobile devices from train customers ... If you witness something suspicious, contact us using call boxes on platforms and trains."

The targeting of smartphones on the Hiawatha line in the past four weeks is part of a national trend that erupted earlier on the New York City subway and the Metro in Washington, D.C.

"Whatever happens on either coast ... it takes awhile to get into the center of the country," Twin Cities Metro Transit police chief Dave Indrehus said Tuesday.

He said the 19 snatch-and-run thefts on the Hiawatha in the past month "is probably what we might see in four or five months."

One juvenile has been arrested. No one has been seriously hurt in the incidents, although one thief hit a person before grabbing a phone. All but two of the thefts occurred between the Metrodome and 46th Street stops.

There have been more thefts on the light-rail than on buses, perhaps because the train cars are easier to exit quickly.

Most often the thieves stand alongside passengers who are holding phones near a door inside a light-rail car. When the train stops and the door opens, the thief grabs it and flees down the platform.

"I was at the 38th Street stop ... sitting at the seat by the door," recalled Amy Jo Novack, 32, of Minneapolis. "Some kids kind of pushed me. ... I think they were trying to stun me, which they did."

"When I was kind of bent over they ... took my phone out of my hand and ran out as the doors were closing," Novack said. "They were trying to time it perfectly so they could make it out as the doors were closing. But I was able to slip through so I kind of chased them a little bit.

"They were really fast. I was never going to catch them."

Novack said police officers in a nearby train car helped her but were unable to catch the half-dozen youths she said stole her phone, an HTC Sensation 4G Android.

Canceled phones have value

While cellphone subscriptions can quickly be canceled, authorities say the phones can retain value.

"Sometimes they just take it for the brief period of time they can use it before it gets shut down," Indrehus said.

Some models also are sold to pawn shops or other outlets where they can be re-programmed, authorities say.

Metro Transit has occasionally played recorded warnings at a specific station after a theft occurs. The current announcement is heard at all platforms along the line, urging riders to "protect your smartphone, especially near train doors where snatch and run crimes have occurred."

Metro Transit assigned plainclothes officers a week ago to work the Hiawatha to catch the thieves. Surveillance video on the Hiawatha indicates the thefts have been committed by solo thieves as well as groups, males and females.

"I always make sure I have a firm hold," said Julian Moran, 28, of Minneapolis, who was checking his cellphone while riding south on Hiawatha Tuesday afternoon.

Moran said he once saw a cellphone ripped out of the hand of a woman "who was holding it like this," thrusting his phone out to demonstrate.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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  • Julian Moran, who once saw a cellphone ripped from a woman’s hand, said he tries to keep his guard up. He rides the train to his job at the Mall of America.

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