Increase in Lost Cellphones Held for Ransom

In an increasing number of local cases, people who recover lost cellphones are holding those phones for ransom from the owners, according to a News4 I-Team investigation.

In several recent instances, the suspects demanded between $100 and $300 to return a phone. Local police departments, including U.S. Capitol Police and Metro Transit Police, have arrested people for doing so, charging the suspects with theft.

Police reports reviewed by the I-Team show multiple cases occurring on U.S. Capitol grounds in recent months. Police reported arresting a man who asked for $100 before returning a lost iPhone5 to a meet-up location along Constitution Avenue. In a similar case in December, Capitol Police said they arrested a person who attempted to “extort” money from a victim who’d lost a phone.

Metro Transit Police made a similar arrest in 2015 after a man demanded $300 for the return of a phone stolen from an Orange Line train at a stop at the Deanwood station. Surveillance footage obtained by the I-Team shows the theft, in which a group of people boards the train, snatches the phone from a woman’s hand, then throws rock salt in her face. Weeks later, according to police records, a different man was arrested for theft when he tried to sell the same phone back to the victim.

The I-Team’s undercover cameras captured video of a similar incident. A woman demanded $200 in cash before returning a phone to the family from whom it was stolen. The woman arranged a meet-up at a fast-food restaurant to complete the exchange but was taken into custody by undercover police officers who were tipped by the victim. The officers helped arrange a sting to capture the woman. They said the woman told officers she’d purchased the phone at a nearby store. She was not charged, a Metro spokesman said.

“Cases where a thief attempts to sell back a stolen phone to the original victim are a priority for police, primarily due to the potential risk to the victim, but also because -- by putting undercover officers into a buy-bust operation -- we have the opportunity to disrupt the broader criminal enterprise and gather further intelligence to prevent robberies in the first place,” Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik said.

The I-Team’s review of police records reveals thousands of iPhone thefts in the D.C. region in 2015. In Montgomery County alone, police reported 4,000 phones stolen since the beginning of 2014. Metro Transit Police records show progress in reducing overall theft numbers but indicate thefts are still an ongoing issue.

The I-Team ‘s undercover cameras tracked the movement of a pair of phones placed in public spaces in Washington , D.C. In three instances, a person found and took the device. In only one of three instances did one of those people return the phone.

Metro Transit Police offer the following tips for people who get a ransom demand for their cellphones:

First, best advice is prevention -- take steps to avoid becoming a victim (maintain awareness, keep your head out of your phone, hold with both hands, etc).

Second, make sure you have tracking software active on your phone. If the phone is stolen, that gives police a way to get it back.

Third, if you're a victim and you're contacted as part of a buy-back, you should immediately notify police and take no other action. We, and other police departments, have had victims attempt to buy their phones back on their own, only to be victimized again. Let law enforcement handle it.

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Jeff Piper and Steve Jones, and edited by Jeff Piper.

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