Police investigate spate of cell phone robberies

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Police investigate spate of cell phone robberies
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The Alexandria Police Department is investigating a series of cell phone robberies in the city it says have been sparked by people buying or selling devices through electronic applications.

On the evening of December 27, a suspect stole a cell phone at gunpoint on the 1000 block of N. Henry St., then the following day a phone was stolen on the 1200 block of Madison St.

On December 30, a teenaged suspect stole cash during a cell phone sale facilitated through an app on the 4600 block of Seminary Road, then the 1200 block of Madison St. was struck again as three armed suspects stole a phone on January 1.

The recent uptick in robberies from criminals using emerging phone apps like OfferUp and letgo as well as traditional online selling platforms like Facebook and Craigslist has police concerned.

OfferUp and letgo are new phone applications that allow those interested in buying or selling items to find people nearby willing to do so using a phone’s GPS service. The apps also have chat features, meaning both sides can interact without giving away personal information.

“I hate to say it, but it’s al- most like an arranged robbery,” said Acting Police Chief David Huchler. “If you’re a criminal and you’re trying to create the opportunity, the apps such as OfferUp, letgo, Facebook, Craigslist — all these types of online forums — are allowing criminals to reach out and pick their victims. That’s why it’s such a difficult crime to prevent, because there are opportunities that are being created by the criminal element.”

Huchler said that often, criminals use fake accounts to connect with possible victims, usually posing as someone interested in buying a cell phone. He added that the apparent increase in robberies surrounding these kinds of transactions seems to be because it is seen as a straightforward moneymaking method.

“I think it’s because there is a supply and demand,” Huchler said. “There’s a demand for cell phones, and it’s easy money once you obtain that phone to go ahead and sell it. I think that’s the reason why. I think some of our criminal element has figured out that this is an easy way to make some quick money.”

For those looking to buy or sell goods on one of these applications, Huchler had two pieces of advice. First, he said that those looking to connect with other people through the app should do their research and verify someone’s identity, which can be done by communicating outside of the app.

If the other side of the trans- action is willing to give you their telephone number for further communication, Huchler said, it is more likely they are who they say they are.

Huchler’s second piece of advice was to ensure that any sales are made in an area that is both well lit and well populated.

“Just like any business transaction, you would not do that business transaction with somebody you don’t know, somebody you have not verified, [or] you don’t know if they’re reputable,” he said. “There are simple steps you can take to ensure that, and that’s by contacting the person through a telephone, getting a telephone number and then creating a meet area. … One of the issues that we’ve seen is that these apps allow for a location-based selling opportunity. As much as you may say, ‘Can we meet up at the mall?’ it does not appear that’s how these apps are working.”

Huchler declined to comment on specific actions Alexandria police are taking to combat a crime that he described as difficult to patrol as officers generally struggle to “be at the right spot at the right time.” But he said that the police department is putting everything available to use.

“We’ve put a number of assets in that area both undercover and in uniform,” he said. “I do want the community to know that we’re doing everything we can. We have a lot of resources in that area, and our investigators are investigating each and every one of these cases and making progress in trying to identify criminals that are conducting this type of activity. They just need to know we’re paying very close attention to that community and investigating each and every one of these incidents.”

Although these crimes can be difficult to prevent, Huchler said a designated zone where sales can be made, such as that set up by the Leesburg Police Department, is likely not a solution.

“That type of program came into existence when Craigslist was the primary source of people doing selling and buying,” Huchler said. “For these types of crimes we’re seeing, that would not benefit or prevent these types of crimes. These are geo-based type apps that allow you to identify buyers or sellers that are in close proximity to you, so therefore I don’t think having an area that is designated as a place to do these types of transactions would have prevented these types of crimes, because I don’t think any of our victims would have said, ‘Let’s go meet up at this specific location to do that.’”

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