Examiner Editorial: Beware the surge in laptop thefts

The following is what seems like the approximate thought process of an opportunistic would-be robber in the final moments prior to grabbing a personal electronics device away from its owner and sprinting away: “Hmmm, I really like that dude’s laptop [or iPod, iPhone, Blackberry or cell phone]. I’m bigger than him/her. I bet I could run faster too — and my friends are with me. OK, I want that thing … I’M TAKING IT RIGHT NOW.”

If restaurant takeover robberies have lately become the emblematic crime of Oakland and the East Bay, then relatively spontaneous snatches of popular personal electronics being used in public places seems to be emerging as San Francisco’s trendiest new strong-arm offense.

Police say there has been an outbreak of laptop computer grab-and-runs in recent weeks, especially in neighborhoods frequented after dark by youthful high-tech aficionados most likely to be toting expensive portable electronics. These robberies are not only
computer-bag snatches in the streets or on crowded Muni buses, but now they are also routinely perpetrated at Wi-Fi cafes while the laptop is actually in use or the owner is momentarily inattentive.

At least seven laptops were reported stolen in the Mission district between Aug. 7-17. One particularly disturbing public theft occurred in Cafe Petra on Guerrero Street at about 9 p.m. Aug. 14. A woman sitting in the cafe noticed three men staring at her from the street outside, police said. Minutes later, the suspects dashed inside the coffeehouse, swooped up her laptop and ran north on Guerrero.

The SFPD Robbery Division does not provide exact numbers on laptop thefts in The City because other types of stolen electronics are included in those statistics — but a police official described local laptop larcenies as “not uncommon.”

Certainly any regular reader of The Examiner’s daily Police Blotter feature is well aware that brazen robberies of people carrying their personal electronics devices in open view have consistently shown up in the crime logs. (The previous trend highlighted iPods being snatched from teens on packed after-school buses.)

Laptop computers are today’s finest grab-and-run target, a perfect blend of costliness, portability and ease of resale. San Francisco is also an ideal city for opportunistic electronics snatchers, with thronged districts and less drivers to go in pursuit.

Aside from giving readers the obvious warning to stay alert when outside home with your personal electronics, we should point out that inventive technology could make laptops much harder to steal successfully.

Some protective devices are already reaching market, such as lock, chains and alarms. Ideally what is needed is a miniaturized combination of LoJack, car alarm and global positioning system that calls attention to an escaping thief and transmits the laptop’s location. Surely Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs could see the sales potential of a needed product like this.

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