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Top Story:  Lessons from an Attempted iPhone Theft

02/06/2014

By Sandra Tarpinian
Public Affairs Operations

Personal stories often generate SuperVisions articles. The following account of an iPhone robbery, as told by Judy Morrison, a Senior IT Specialist at Headquarters, has lessons for all of us.

Judy Morrison checks her iPhone for messages near the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station, which is adjacent to OCC Headquarters.

Judy Morrison checks her iPhone for messages near the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station, which is adjacent to OCC Headquarters.

In the Blink of an iPhone

It was a special, but not remarkable, day. I was headed into work for an event I had helped plan and was looking forward to seeing the program unfold. As I sat in the Washington, D.C., Metrorail car answering e-mails on my iPhone, I felt the phone being snatched from my hand. I caught sight of the face of a teenager as he and a second teen ran out of the car.

Before I knew it, I was chasing them across the Metro station platform shouting, “Stop! Thief! Metro Officer!” I was hoping to draw attention to what was happening and get help. The two thieves split up, and the one with my phone ran down the “up” escalator. So, I followed, with my briefcase over my shoulder and boots clomping. He sped through the turnstile with me 30 yards behind.

I glanced at the station manager’s empty kiosk as I went through the turnstile thinking, “What a time for him to be gone.” Well, he was gone because he had heard my screams, saw the boys had joined up and were running away, and called for assistance from a Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) police officer who was nearby.

I ran up to the officer and station manager and watched helplessly as the boys squeezed through a 10-foot-high security gate around a U.S. Postal Service compound and appeared to have gotten away. But the officer said the compound was a “secure area” and didn’t believe that they could get out easily. He jumped in his car to pursue.

The Metro station manager and I returned to the station and encountered two officers from the MTPD Counter-Terrorism unit. They pulled up in a large black SUV with tinted windows. The officers began taking down details about the incident. I borrowed the officer’s cell phone to call a friend who could track my stolen phone using the “Find Friends” iPhone app. My friend could see the location of the phone, and I relayed that to the officers. The officers called the first MTPD officer, and he was able to apprehend and handcuff the two teens who he thought had taken my phone.

We all hopped in the SUV and took off—sirens blaring and wheels squealing--to meet the officer and the suspects. We finally arrived at the parking lot where the suspects had been apprehended and spent the next two hours following police protocol. It wasn’t until then, as I sat safely in the back of the SUV, that I asked myself “what if the thieves had weapons?” Or, “what if it had been dark?” Hopefully, I would have had the sense to assess that situation and respond in a reasonable and safe way.

The police eventually called the cell phone number that I had provided, and the phone that they had confiscated from the suspects rang. One boy was arrested, my phone was returned, the officers drove me back to the Metro, and I resumed my trip downtown to the office as if nothing had happened. I guess it was a remarkable day, after all.

The rising tide of cell phone theft

Judy Morrison’s story is a personal one but one that thousands of people experience each day. According to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), theft of wireless devices, particularly smartphones, is rising sharply across the United States.

The FCC, wireless providers and equipment manufacturers, law enforcement officials from many major cities, and other policymakers have collaborated to develop strategies to minimize the aftermarket for stolen phones. Consumer education campaigns, an integrated database designed to prevent the reactivation of stolen phones, and better apps and tracking software are all attempts to stem the tide of phone thefts. Ultimately, though, it is up to users to protect their phones and the personal information it may contain.

The FCC Web site offers these suggestions to protect your personal smartphone:

  • Use your phone discreetly in public places.
  • Keep your phone with you in public places and locked out of sight in unattended vehicles.
  • Write down and keep the phone’s make, model number, serial number, and unique identification number (either the International Mobile Equipment Identifier [IMEI] or the Mobile Equipment Identifier [MEID] number) to help identify your phone if it is found.
  • Establish a password to restrict access and use it.
  • Install and maintain anti-theft software; use it if your phone is stolen.
    Apps are available that will
    • locate your phone from any computer.
    • lock the phone to restrict access.
    • wipe sensitive data from the phone, including contacts, text messages, photos, e-mails, browser histories, and user accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter.
    • make the phone emit a loud sound to help locate it.
  • Make your lock screen display contact information, such as an e-mail address so the phone may be returned to you if it is found.
  • Report a theft or loss to your carrier to avoid usage charges and to initiate possible disabling and blocked access of your phone by the carrier.
  • Report a theft to the police and supply them with make, model, serial, and IMEI or MEID number

The FCC Web site provides additional information about protecting your smartphone from loss or theft.

Protecting your OCC-issued BlackBerry

OCC employees who are issued BlackBerry devices are expected to take the necessary steps to keep their phones secure in order to prevent the disclosure or compromise of OCC information they contain.

If your BlackBerry is lost or stolen, report the incident immediately. You should:

  • Inform your supervisor.
  • Call OCC Customer Support (Get IT Help?) at (800) 788-7002 and report as much information as you can about the loss or theft.
  • If you believe that your BlackBerry is stolen, file a stolen property report including ID numbers with local police and submit the report number or a copy to your supervisor and OCC Customer Support.

OCC BlackBerry devices have built-in security features in the event they are stolen. OCC BlackBerrys are “wiped” or returned to an ‘as new’ state after 10 incorrect password entries or in the event that it is reported stolen. Employees may call OCC Customer Support at (800) 788-7002 to reestablish service if the phone is found or recovered.

The OCC also encrypts messages sent through your OCC BlackBerry and the information stored on your OCC BlackBerry and the device's memory card.

To further ensure the secure and safe use of your BlackBerry:

  • Create a password comprising at least eight characters every 90 days.
  • Lock the phone when not in use.
  • Keep the phone in your immediate possession by hand-carrying it at all times.
  • Never place it in checked luggage or leave it visible in an unlocked vehicle.
  • Check taxi, rental car, and airline seats for the device before exiting.

For more information, review OCC directive PPM 4000-4-1 Supplement, "Use and Protection of OCC-Issued BlackBerry Devices” and OMAAG “Lost or Stolen OCC Information Resources.” For more information on how to prevent equipment thefts, see Situational Awareness Training on Equipment Theft (PDF).

Last Updated: 06/20/2014