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Smartphone robberies called serious issue

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

The four robbers dragged their 15-year-old victim off the street and into an SUV. One brandished a gun. Another flashed a knife. In the rear cargo area, they choked the terrified boy until he gave up his iPhone, police said.

The March 14 crime in Baldwin was brutal, but not unique.

A different group of teens pummeled and snatched smartphones from a couple in Freeport on March 24, police said.

Four days later, roving thieves mugged five high school students for their iPhones and other electronics in Uniondale.

Seven teenagers have been charged in the Freeport robbery and another in connection with one of the Uniondale robberies.

Nassau County police say such smartphone robberies are a serious issue.

"It's a real problem because kids are the victims and they get beat up pretty good," said Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryder, commanding officer of Nassau County Police Department's asset forfeiture and intelligence unit. "A kid is walking home from school with earbuds in his ears and the next thing you know, three kids are throwing him a beating. They want those iPhones."

Nationwide, police have seen a sharp increase in stolen cellphones and other mobile devices, according to surveys conducted by The Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of 70 police chiefs from large cities in the United States and Canada.

In New York City alone, police recorded over 26,000 thefts of electronics in the first 10 months of 2011, records show. More than 80 percent of those crimes involved smartphones and other cellphones.


The impact on LI

On Long Island, the crime is less frequent, but demand is fueling other crimes, including cellphone-store burglaries and smartphone thefts from purses and open car windows, authorities say.

According to the most-recent available data:

633 cellphones were reported stolen to Nassau County police last year, down from 698 in 2010.

On the Long Island Rail Road, 45 cellphones were reported stolen last year -- up from 33 a year earlier, according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority police.

While Suffolk police could not provide the number of cellphone thefts, they said they have seen an increase this year in cellphone-store burglaries. That pilfered merchandise is moving directly to the black market, police said.

"Right now it's just too easy," said Suffolk County Police Deputy Insp. Gerard McCarthy.


Incentive to steal

Thieves go after cellphones because it is easy to remove the electronic traces of the victim and set them up to be resold to new customers.

"It's almost all profit because you buy very cheap and sell [a smartphone] for a few hundred [dollars]," said Anthony DeFurio, 47, who said he once bought and sold black market phones out of a friend's grocery store in Hempstead.

DeFurio pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property in 2008 and was sentenced to probation, records show.

Criminals sometimes trade expensive handsets to middlemen who in turn sell the devices to unscrupulous merchants, DeFurio and security experts say.

Those merchants replace the smartphone's SIM card -- which stores data -- and unlock the device's security settings. A buyer then activates the phone on a new account, allowing it to re-enter the legal market.

"No one asked questions [about a phone's origins]," DeFurio said.

Some cellphones are easier to reactivate than others, police say. Verizon and Sprint smartphones have electronic serial numbers, which the companies already use to block stolen handsets from reactivation.

In contrast, T-Mobile and AT&T smartphones typically use removable SIM cards -- instead of serial numbers -- to track and identify their phones.

The SIM card is disabled by the carriers after a theft, but the phone itself can often be reactivated.

Robert Siciliano, a personal security expert who does research and consulting for the McAfee digital security company, said the high cost of smartphones increases the appeal for the resold black-market devices.

"The only [legitimate] way to get a cheap mobile phone is by signing up for a two-year contract, and that scares a lot of people who don't have that kind of money," Siciliano said. "So it's much easier to buy one on the black market for $300."


Fighting the problem

Police say the only way to eliminate smartphone theft is to make the stolen devices unusable.

They have high hopes for a new initiative -- announced last month by the Federal Communications Commission and major wireless carriers -- that seeks to track and permanently disable all stolen cellphones.

Last week, Sen. Charles Schumer introduced legislation that would make it a federal crime to tamper with stolen cellphones.

For now though, smartphones and their owners still make attractive targets.

"Steal it, change out the SIM, sell it, activate it and you're good," DeFurio said. "They should have made it harder."

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016.

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book.

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote.

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures.

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources.  In this story, Newsday could not locate: Anthony DeFurio. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review.

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names.

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes.

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local.

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.”

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes.

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday.

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission.  If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories.

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