by Al Sacco

Controversial SFPD Sting Targets Stolen-iPhone Buyers Instead of Thieves

Apr 29, 20133 mins

The city of San Francisco is using controversial police sting operations to nab people who buy stolen iPhones because efforts to identify and arrest the actual thieves have proven to be ineffective.

iPhone and smartphone theft in major U.S. cities is a very serious issue, and one that’s on the rise. Most of us who live in or around big cities have probably experienced some form of phone theft, or at least witnessed it. (Check out Senior Online Writer Tom Kaneshige’s personal account here.)

iPhone Handcuffs stolen theft

Police in cities including New York and San Francisco are now conducting controversial undercover-sting operations that target the buyers of stolen iPhones and other gadgets, after finding efforts to capture the actual thieves to be less than effective, according to a report on Police officers pose as people attempting to peddle the gadgets.

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) secured a number of new, still-in-the-box iPhones from Apple for use in the sting. Officers work together in high-profile areas known to be hotspots for stolen-electronics resellers, specifically the intersection of Seventh and Market streets, and then target people and groups who knowingly purchase stolen goods for resale.


“Initially, the undercover unit focused on catching people stealing phones. Officers rode city trains and buses while appearing to carelessly text, hoping to attract thieves. But hardly anyone took the bait. Now, the task force is pursuing a new strategy: arresting buyers. The team aims to poison the market with fear and distrust, depriving would-be sellers of a place to unload their stolen merchandise.

“‘If they steal the phone but can’t sell it, there’s no market,” San Francisco Police Capt. Joe Garrity says. “We’re cutting the head off the snake.'”

The tactic is an interesting and controversial one. Critics of the efforts liken it to the modern war on drugs, which despite increases in arrests has clearly not reduced the amount of illegal substances sold and consumed. Critics also suggest the efforts could entrap otherwise law-abiding citizens who may be unjustly enticed into purchasing stolen goods.

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“Garrity explains later that the undercover stings ‘are hit or miss sometimes,’ but he defends the strategy. ‘It’s been successful,’ he says. ‘If we just sit back and do nothing, they’d be down at Seventh and Market in droves. We have to do something to address this problem.'”

Personally, I tend to agree with the critics of the SFPD sting. San Francisco is admirably trying to target organized resellers who make it their business to sell stolen devices. The problem is that many “innocent” people who may not be able to afford iPhones or other gadgets will also be targeted and unduly subjected to temptation that could prove to be too much to resist.

Of course, buying a stolen iPhone is wrong, no two ways about it, and anyone who does so is asking for trouble. But a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy a cheap and suspect iPhone doesn’t necessarily make you a criminal—not in my opinion, at least—and arresting these types of people will not significantly affect the market for stolen smartphones; thieves and resellers will simply find new ways to distribute the goods.

I do understand the SFPD’s position, though. Something must be done to combat iPhone theft and stolen-device resale. I’m just not sure these efforts will prove to be effective over time, because it’s too difficult to differentiate the “professionals” and the folks just looking for an affordable high-end smartphone.

Visit for much more detail on the operation. (I mean much more; this story goes on and on.)