The San Francisco Bay Guardian is reporting on a new crime: people who grab laptops out of their owners’ hands and then run away. It’s called “iJacking,” and there seems to be a wave of this type of crime at Internet cafes in San Francisco:
In 2004 the SFPD Robbery Division recorded 17 strong-arm laptop robberies citywide. This increased to 30 cases in 2005, a total that doesn’t even include thefts that fall under the category of “burglary,” when a victim isn’t present. (SFPD could not provide statistics on the number of laptop burglaries.)
In the past three months alone, Park Station, the police precinct that includes the Western Addition, has reported 11 strong-arm laptop robberies, a statistic that suggests this one district may exceed last year’s citywide total by the end of 2006.
Maloney was absorbed in his work when suddenly a hooded person yanked the laptop from Maloney’s hands and ran out the door. Maloney tried to grab his computer, but he stumbled across a few chairs and landed on the floor as the perpetrator dashed to a vehicle waiting a quarter block away.
Two weeks before Maloney’s robbery, on a Sunday afternoon, a man had been followed out of the Starbucks on the corner of Fulton Street and Masonic Avenue and was assaulted by two suspects in broad daylight. According to the police report, the suspects dragged the victim 15 feet along the pavement, kicking him in the face before stealing his computer.
In early February a women had her laptop snatched while sitting in Ali’s Café. She pursued the perpetrator out the door, only to be blindsided by a second accomplice. Ali described the assault as “a football tackle” so severe it left the victim’s eyeglasses in the branches of a nearby tree. In the most recent laptop robbery, on March 16 in a café on the 900 block of Valencia Street, police say the victim was actually stabbed.
It’s obvious why these thefts are occurring. Laptops are valuable, easy to steal, and easy to fence. If we want to “solve” this problem, we need to modify at least one of those characteristics. Some Internet cafes are providing locking cables for their patrons, in an attempt to make them harder to steal. But that will only mean that the muggers will follow their victims out of the cafes. Laptops will become less valuable over time, but that really isn’t a good solution. The only thing left is to make them harder to fence.
This isn’t an easy problem. There are a bunch of companies that make solutions that help people recover stolen laptops. There are programs that “phone home” if a laptop is stolen. There are programs that hide a serial number on the hard drive somewhere. There are non-removable tags users can affix to their computers with ID information. But until this kind of thing becomes common, the crimes will continue.
Reminds me of the problem of bicycle thefts.