What's Driving Oakland's Robbery Epidemic? 

Answer: Smartphones. And law enforcement experts say cellphone companies could make our streets a lot safer if they would install kill switches that make their phones inoperable when stolen.

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But instead of installing hardware kill switches, Apple and Samsung recently introduced software upgrades and applications that include kill-switch-type features. However, the companies have not actively marketed these upgrades, and so many consumers appear to be unaware of them. Some law enforcement experts are also skeptical about whether they will work — or whether hackers will be able to eventually overcome them.

And if that were to happen, then the robbery epidemic in Oakland and other cities likely will only get worse.

It costs just a buck to enter the Laney Flea Market, and with that dollar you enter a different world. Maní in shell, freshly sliced mango, agua fresca, boiled garbanzos, and hot tostadas from the plancha fill the air with a mixture of scents typically found farther south. Besides delicious and affordable food, you can find pretty much everything else at the market. Need a drill bit, or a vacuum, maybe a jacket or some hair gel? Not a problem — the vendors will hook you up. If you've got $500 cash burning a hole in your pocket, you can get a "clean" iPhone 5, too.

On a recent Sunday, four vendors were selling used smartphones of various models. One stand had an "unlocked" iPhone 5 for $580. The salesman assured me that it was ready to activate with any carrier — just pop in a new SIM card. It's possible that phones likes this one had been sold legitimately by their original owners and were now being resold legally at the flea market. But they also might have been stolen.

Last November, San Francisco police raided a storage facility in the city's Tenderloin district and found $500,000 in stolen electronics, including smartphones, tablets, and laptops. The suspects told San Francisco police that they regularly sold the stolen goods overseas and sent the rest to Oakland flea markets.

Lieutenant Ed Santos, head of the SFPD Central Station investigation team, said the department has conducted five or six similar "fencing operation" raids since last fall, and uncovered a cache of stolen electronics every time. He explained that the term "fencing" refers to the middlemen of the electronics black market — organized groups that purchase stolen electronics in bulk from street robbers, and then resell them. Fencing groups are essentially the "wholesalers" of the stolen smartphone trade, and Santos believes they are just one layer in a multi-tiered industry.

"You have the young who are stealing," said Santos. "While the people who are running these [fencing] operations are usually in their mid-thirties and up, we also believe there is a much greater, international organization that is buying these products from the middlemen. These things are being sold quickly, and everything that doesn't move is sold at Oakland flea markets."

An iPhone 5 can fetch more than $500 at a local flea market. But overseas, the price tag jumps even higher. "The business model of carriers is different in other countries," Gascón explained. "Here, they give you the phone with the contract [for $199], while in other places you pay the actual value for the phone, which can be around $700."

The sheer scale of the international smartphone black market helps explain why previous attempts to thwart robberies — like a national stolen cellphone database — failed to make an impact. If a smartphone is shipped to China, foreign carriers are not going to vet its legitimacy against a US database. As a result, the only effective deterrent, American law enforcement officials say, is to make the smartphone itself inoperable when stolen.

The profitability of cellphone theft, from the least organized street robbers to the criminal elite, also highlights why local police forces have been struggling to deal with the robbery epidemic. "Cellphones are easily sold on secondhand markets and are the driving force behind our surge in robberies," said Lieutenant Bolton of the OPD. "With the staff we have, we've had to focus on problem-solving .... We've made attempts through education efforts to prevent theft and recover phones, but ultimately, the solution will be in these types of technological advances."

On June 13, Gascón and Schneiderman held a press conference in New York City to unveil their "Secure our Smartphones" Initiative. A coalition that includes dozens of district attorneys, attorneys general, police chiefs, public safety activists, and researchers from across the country had signed a petition demanding that cellphone companies find a technological solution to the growing problem of street robberies.

Later that day, Gascón and Schneiderman held a "Smart Phone Summit," which was attended by the largest smartphone makers — including Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, and Google — and was organized to discuss the necessity of kill switches. Gascón told me at the time that he was hopeful the meeting would be fruitful, and that momentum was shifting, but he added that it had been a struggle to find a sympathetic ear in the industry. He said he had been "stonewalled" during his initial appeals to the cellphone carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, and in January, Apple representatives had told him that a technological solution was "not forthcoming."

"The industry has to admit that there is a technological solution rather than a software solution," Gascón said in a June interview. "A hardware solution will be much harder to hack and will render the phone inoperable."

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