San Francisco cellphone thieves going pro

There's apparently enough teamwork among cellphone crooks in San Francisco these days that they could probably start a league.

With thefts of these increasingly valuable devices becoming more prevalent, thieves appear to be learning the value of collaboration — and it's not making it any easier on the public or police. The various tactics include slapping a phone out of someone's hand while he or she is talking on it, using accomplices to block victims from chasing after thieves, and even enlisting someone to do what appears to be a good deed in getting the phone back.

The Guardian Angel

One recent trend, according to Police Chief Greg Suhr, involves theft accomplices posing as good Samaritans who return the pilfered cellphones in hopes of benefiting from the grateful victims.

In these cases, Suhr said, a thief will swipe a phone from a person and take off running. Then suddenly a crime-fighting vigilante will appear and chase down the thief and retrieve the phone. While the victim is showering this brave soul with thank-yous, the person will slyly ask for $20 or so for the effort — after all, that potentially stolen phone is much more valuable.

Police are seeing this more often as an alternative to low-level drug dealing. Even though an iPhone can be sold for at least $100 on the black market, $20 is “more than I can get for selling [crack cocaine],” said Suhr, who believes a lot of criminals are switching from dealing narcotics to stealing phones because of the easy, less risky payout.

“When everybody is mystified as to why narcotics arrests are down, maybe it's because there are so many cellphone robbers,” Suhr said.

The Offensive Lineman

The increasing popularity of the crime ushers in all sorts of creative ways to steal phones. Restaurant patrons and public transit passengers are even seeing tactics more commonly used in the NFL.

Earlier this month, for example, a man's cellphone was swiped while he was eating at Taco Bell on Mission Street near the Mission Terrace neighborhood.

When he tried to chase down the female suspect, he was blocked at the door of the Taco Bell by two more suspects who purposely stood in his way, police said.

The suspect and her accomplices initially got away, although all three were apprehended a few blocks away by police officers who were investigating a separate robbery. One of the responding officers even called the victim's phone, and it rang on the ground near one of the apprehended suspects.

The woman suspected of swiping the phone at the fast-food chain, 27-year-old Ryon Lynn Jefferies of San Leandro, was charged with multiple counts. The cases against her two suspected accomplices, however, were discharged pending further investigation.

The Karate Kid

Jefferies also has been charged with an attempted robbery that occurred on a Muni bus a half-hour before the Taco Bell incident.

In that case, all three suspects were together when Jefferies allegedly slapped a phone out of a victim's hand. The victim, however, scooped up the phone off the floor before Jefferies could get to it, and she and her accomplices fled from the bus, police said.

This slap, grab and run method also has become more common in The City, according to District Attorney George Gascón. He told The San Francisco Examiner in February that while it takes more dexterity than other methods, it is startling for the victim and can thus be a more successful route for the thief to take.

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