More than three weeks ago, two men walked into Hudson, a high-class bar and restaurant in Rockridge, and asked Rachel Abdelfattah, a bartender there, to place a reservation for ten people.
Unfamiliar with large reservations, Abdelfattah, 25, turned to her colleague. When she turned back again, the men were on their way out the door. Her iPhone 4, which she had placed on top of her leather purse on the bar’s black countertop, was gone.
“I turned around and I thought they were playing a joke on me,” Abdelfattah said. “I didn’t realize what had happened until my cell phone was gone.”
Abdelfattah’s experience is part of a recent increase in electronics robberies and thefts in North and West Oakland.
Police said they have recorded a surge in such robberies in Rockridge, Temescal, Montclair, downtown Oakland, and around BART stations, particularly the MacArthur station. Many incidents have occurred in restaurants, like the Hudson, and cafes, police said.
Perpetrators are grabbing iPhones, iPads, laptops and other electronic devices with increasing frequency, prompting police to step up patrols in the areas and increase their public awareness campaign, said Oakland Police Officer and spokesperson Johnna Watson.
From May 23 to Aug. 23, there were 557 such incidents reported in North and West Oakland, according to Watson. Police compared this number to 448 reported between Feb. 23 and May 23. Watson said the increase was indicative of a larger trend over the last few years as devices have become more popular and more valuable.
“I think what we’re seeing is this is an area where if you take an electronic item, it can be turned around and sold very quickly for a large amount of cash,” Watson said. “It has more street value. There’s more of a demand for it.”
According to Watson, while some stolen devices are sold on Craigslist, most exchange hands through a black market.
She said there have not been any reported injuries in these incidents, and that often there is no confrontation between the perpetrator and the victim.
A barista at Bica Coffeehouse, a few blocks north of Hudson, said earlier this summer, somebody reached through the coffeehouse’s five-foot tall windows, grabbed a laptop, jumped in a getaway car, and drove off.
“This is such a quick crime that occurs,” Watson said. “It’s just a grab and go.”
Watson said public outreach is the main tool the police and the community have to curb the increase in stolen electronics. She said police emphasize that people must be aware of their surroundings and not leave their electronics in open, easy to reach places.
Frank Castro, chair of the Greater Rockridge Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, said that each month, community members and local officers focus on three priorities to improve the community, which includes the Hudson. In August, electronic device theft was one of the priorities.
“They’ve definitely spiked over the course of the last, I would say, three months,” Castro said.
Police have met with community groups, like the neighborhood crime prevention councils and business associations, as part of a public outreach campaign, Watson said. On Aug. 23, BART police and Oakland police jointly handed out flyers at the MacArthur BART station, one of the focus areas.
BART Police spokesperson Era Jenkins said reported snatch-and-grab incidents on BART totaled 107 in 2010 and increased to 124 in 2011. Since January, there have been 55 this year, Jenkins said.
“We’re not really sure how the numbers are going to pan out for 2012,” she said.
She said both the perpetrators and the victims appeared to be from a diverse, unconnected group of ages and ethnicities.
She said that when a stolen phone is reported, police do attempt to track the device, though some are turned off by perpetrators before police can track the signal. Jenkins said she could not provide statistics on the success rate of tracing phones.
Jenkins said that despite the increase in thefts, nearly everyone on BART during commute hours carries smartphones, and that passengers are often listening to music and unaware of their surroundings.
She said that people keeping a phone or iPad out to play a game or read a book should try to stay away from BART car exits, as visible devices have a much greater chance of being stolen and thieves often escape through closing BART doors.
“The convenience of having it is wonderful,” Jenkins said. “If you’d like to keep your property, you should keep it in your purse or pocket or somewhere that’s not visible.”