Undercover police stings target buyers of stolen iPhones

“On a cloudy afternoon in the Tenderloin district, a man in a hooded sweatshirt walks slowly along Market Street, stopping to engage people he encounters along the way,” Gerry Smith reports for The Huffington Post. “He offers a peek at the wares inside the backpack slung over his shoulder: Three new iPhones, each still sealed in a white box affixed with Apple’s logo. He stole these phones, he tells potential customers, before asking them to make an offer.”

“He walks past a check-cashing shop and a boarded-up pharmacy until he attracts an interested buyer. But before the deal is done, another man dashes out of a nearby donut shop and mumbles a warning to the would-be buyer in Spanish,” Smith reports. “He suspects the seller is a cop. Suddenly nervous, the buyer walks away.”

Smith reports, “The man in the hoodie is indeed a policeman: Officer Tom Lee is playing the role of decoy in a sting operation targeting buyers of stolen iPhones… FLee and his team are part of a special task force established three years ago to combat phone thefts here, mirroring similar undercover teams set up in New York and Washington D.C… For Lee and his partners, shutting down this marketplace has become their primary objective. 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.”

Read more in the full article here.

27 Comments

    1. It’s called entrapment.
      Would the buyer have sought out a stolen phone?
      Probably not.

      Most civilised countries would not allow this.
      I guess the USA is very barbaric. Death penalty, crazy gun laws. ( 30000 shooting deaths per year).

  1. Here’s a radical thought… Catch the people stealing cell phones then prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. Make stealing them not worth it.

    1. Here’s another radical thought: Catching and prosecuting the buyers of stolen property reduces the market for stolen property and makes stealing not worth it. It’s an age old tool for reducing crime. And catching people selling stolen stuff is often easier than catching people committing the original theft because by definition they have to deal with others and spread the word they have stuff to sell – which increases the chance they’ll be caught.

      In the UK the offense of handling stolen goods is actually more serious than theft itself because of its deterrent effect on the crime of theft.

      1. UK. Snicker.
        In criminal law, entrapment is conduct by a law enforcement agent inducing a person to commit an offense that the person would otherwise have been unlikely to commit. In many jurisdictions, entrapment is a possible defense against criminal liability.

        1. Here is the problem, 10% of people are “good” and will not be tempted, the majority of people are “basically good” they probably wouldn’t seek out an item like this but might be tempted if they are presented with something they would like to own. Then there are the 10% who actively seek out stolen goods and the too good to be legal purchase. Seems to me they will be getting a lot of people who are basically good.

        2. Why the snicker? Much of CA law is based on English common law. As for my take on entrapment, see my response to RastaMouse (below). Your post is just a copy and paste from Wikipedia – without even acknowledging where you plagiarized it from.

  2. Wait… So it is against the law to buy something off the street, or is it against the law to buy something that the seller says is stolen (whether it is or isn’t)? I mean what if the cop acted like a normal thief and didn’t announce that it was stolen, but instead said that he got a free upgrade from AT&T or wherever and decided to sell the one he bought. If the guy attempted to buy it under those circumstances from the cop would that be illegal?

      1. It’s only entrapment is the cop persuaded the buyer to buy the stolen phone despite the buyer’s initial reluctance to do so, and if the buyer knew or should have reasonably suspected the phone was stolen.

    1. It is only a crime in the case in which the buyer is knowingly purchasing a stolen device. That is why the undercover officer is specifically stating that he stole the iPhones that are for sale.

    2. it all comes down to whether the buyer acted reasonably. Was the iPhone obviously new and unopened and being sold for a price so low that a reasonable person would suspect it was stolen? Did the seller look like a person who would have a legitimate iPhone? The Tenderloin is the area in SF where many people on the streets are homeless – not likely to pay $80+ a month on an iphone contract. Let the buyer beware – and use some common sense.

      1. Actually, the SF Apple Store on Market is practically in the tenderloin. It’s 2 blocks away from where the article claims the undercover unit was working, at most.

        I mean don’t get me wrong… I cant imagine ever buying anything on the street, unless it was arranged after finding it on craigslist… and thats why I am asking. I try to make sure something isn’t stolen, but it’s often not that easy. I’m actually looking to buy a used Macbook Pro now, and just want to be absolutely clear. If the seller told me it was stolen I wouldn’t go near the thing, but short of there being a receipt it’s kind of hard to be 100% sure. If, in the end the undercover unit always announces it’s stolen, then I am safe but man… they aren’t exactly deterring anything then are they?

        1. I just bought one last night off of Craigslist, I did my best to assure it wasn’t stolen, but with my limited resources my best way to figure that out is from the history of the device. If the seller’s history is fishy, or lacking information, red flags are raised and I shy away from that purchase.

        2. @Polymath: Just act reasonably. Ask sensible questions, and pay a sensible price. If you act reasonably you’re not breaking the law even if the thing turns out to be stolen. If you buy an unopened iPhone 5 from a homeless guy for $50 you’re not acting reasonably. If the going rate for the MBP you want is $1,000 and someone is selling one for $100, there’s likely something fishy. If it has a ding in the case and the guy is asking $800 then the price would seem reasonable.

    3. “So it is against the law to buy something off the street, or is it against the law to buy something that the seller says is stolen (whether it is or isn’t)?”

      It’s actually against the law to *attempt* to buy stolen goods. So the undercover cop didn’t need to actually have a stolen iPhone, just convince the buyer that the iPhone was stolen.

      Once the buyer makes an offer on the iPhone that the undercover cop stated was stolen, the buyer is guilty of attempting to buy stolen goods.

      Source: California Penal Code Section 496(d)

    4. It doesn’t matter if they prosecute or don’t prosecute the buyer. The deterrent effect has been achieved by the possibility that a buyer might be letting himself in for a bunch of hassle. Once the word gets out that it MIGHT happen, the demand for stolen iPhones is reduced and the incentives for thieves to steal them is diminished, the actual goal of the operation. The legal system has no incentives to fill up court dockets and jails with cases against people who engaged in poor decision making once (the number of times the average stolen iPhone buyer will do so). They want to stop the multiple thefts by a crook trying to make a living from selling them.

  3. This task force had to have been the brain child of criminal defense lawyers.

    If I tell you you are buying stolen property, but that property is not actually stolen, is it a crime to conclude the transaction?

    If not, are the police actually carrying around stolen iPhones?

    1. Attempting to commit a criminal act (such as purchasing stolen property) is also a crime. Usually it’s considered just as serious as the main crime itself.

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