PhotoHere's something else to worry about when you are out in public. Thieves are increasingly targeting consumers with smartphones and tablets in their hands, grabbing the devices and sprinting away.

It's a new wrinkle on the old crime of purse-snatching. For years thieves have preyed on women with a pocketbook slung over their shoulder. The thief moves alongside the victim, rips the purse from their grasp and makes a clean getaway before the victim has time to react.

But a purse may or may not have things of value inside it. If there is no cash, the thief has risked capture for very little reward. A smartphone is different. The phone or tablet itself – especially if it is the latest iPhone or Android model, may be worth at least a couple hundred dollars. Beyond that, it might have information on it of even more value to an identity thief.

Often the crime occurs on a subway. Someone standing near the door may be busy texting a friend or reading their email. They aren't paying attention to their surroundings.

Careful timing

The thief times his move very carefully. Just before the door to the car closes, he lunges forward, grabs the smarthphone and jumps through the portal, just as the doors are closing. The shocked victim can only look on in stunned disbelief as the train moves forward and the thief calmly walks toward the exit.

Other means of public transit are equally dangerous. Thieves are also known to target people on buses.

“It’s a crime of opportunity,” Hawthorne, Calif., Police Lt. Scott Swain told KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. “You see a victim walking down the street, talking on the phone, playing on the phone, and it’s just a matter of running up, grabbing the phone, and getting out of there.”

The Washington, D.C., Metro system has seen a big jump in smartphone and tablet thefts.

 “You wouldn’t go around flaunting this $300 in the open. And yet, that’s effectively what you’re doing when you’re not paying attention with your electronic device,” Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik said recently.

Perlik released this video of an actual smartphone crime in progress:

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In Los Angles, police say the crime is growing at a double-digit rate. In San Francisco, police say nearly half of all 2012 robberies included smartphones. According to the National Consumer League, 1.6 million U.S. consumers reported smartphone thefts in 2012. Not all were snatched, but many were. 

Smartphone snatching appears to be a crime with high percentages favoring the thief. If they get away with their heist they can easily find a buyer. Before selling it, however, they may use it to make phone calls, make purchases, and see what kinds of unprotected data are on the device that could lead to an even bigger payday.

Some thieves just want a smartphone without paying for it. They might use it until you get around to suspending your account. After that, they head to a cellphone store and activate the phone on their own account. At any rate, savvy consumers should take steps to avoid being a victim.

What to do

The first step, police say, is to be cautious when you use your smartphone in a public place. Perhaps a subway car is not the best place to be texting. If you have the device in your hand and are preoccupied, you're a pretty easy target.

If you are using your cellphone or a train or bus, don't stand near the door. If you are in the middle of the car, it's much harder for a thief to grab your phone and make a getaway, though it's not impossible. The best course of action may be to keep the phone in your purse or pocket.

Don't walk down the sidewalk using your device. It's probably not safe, to begin with. But you are making yourself a tempting target. Talking on the phone might also make you vulnerable. There have been plenty of reports of thieves snatching a phone away from a victim's ear, in mid-conversation.

With an increasing number of children now using smartphones of their own, this group may be especially vulnerable. After all, you know what they say about taking candy from a baby.

Password protection

This growing crime also underscores the need to employ security safeguards on your phone. At a minimum, you should have password protection on your device, with the ability to lock it. An encryption app could be a good move, along with an app that can track your device if it goes missing.

Some urban police departments have begun registries for smartphones and other mobile devices. Consumers can register their phone's serial number so that if it is lost or stolen, it will trigger an alert if someone later tries to sell it or use it to open a new account.

To combat the problem, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spearheaded a plan to produce a national database. Consumers can now call their carrier to report their stolen smartphone. It will then be blocked from being used again.

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