MODESTO — One evening a few weeks ago, shortly after the Ripon Almond Blossom Festival carnival ended, a trio of 15-year-old boys stood outside a fast-food restaurant on Colony Road.
Two men, each in his 20s, approached them. One pulled out a Leatherman, which is a Swiss Army Knife-like implement that includes knife blades. None of the blades was drawn, Ripon Police Sgt. Steve Merchant said, but the tool nonetheless made its point.
The man tapped one of the boys on the shoulder with it and demanded their cell phones. They were scared. They handed over their phones, and one of the boys surrendered his last $7 in cash.
The crooks then sped off in a turquoise Honda sedan.
The mugging was the first involving cell phones reported in Ripon, Merchant said. But in Modesto, and pretty much everywhere else in the country, these kinds of crimes are becoming more and more commonplace. Google "cell phones and robbed" and you'll find scores of hits from major news sources all over the nation. USA Today reported that nearly half of the robberies reported in San Francisco involve cell phones.
Cell phone theft, period, is big business. California's attorney general this week charged a couple in Sacramento with selling stolen cell phones overseas, pocketing nearly $4 million over an eight-month period. That one, according to The Sacramento Bee, is a scam in which the couple convinced homeless people staying in shelters to sign up for service plans, receiving discounts on numerous smart phones. The couple then sold the phones in Hong Kong for up to $2,000 each.
What we're seeing here is pure strong-armed robbery. The principals are predictable. The perps usually are males, in their teens or early 20s. Some show gang colors, some don't.
Their victims usually are teens, Modesto police Sgt. Ivan Valencia said. These crimes usually happen in the afternoons following school, or in the evenings. They occur most often in public parks, on sidewalks and at bus stops.
The crooks want cell phones or iPods, MP3 players or any other kind of electronic gadgetry and/or cash.
"We saw this trend begin in 2009," Valencia said. "About that time, we began hearing the term 'pocket checks.' "
As in, empty your pockets. Yet, in many cases, the robbers take only the electronics or cash, not the victims' wallets.
In the case of 18-year-old Tylor Crippen of Modesto, three documented gang members are accused of taking much more than his cell phone: They took his life in east Modesto's Creekwood Park in January.
The way that incident transpired is similar to what other victims have experienced. Crippen's case was different because of the senseless, unexplainable brutality. He gave them what they wanted. Then, when he turned to run, they chased him down and stabbed him to death.
In most cases, robbers start by identifying easy targets teens who are alone or few in numbers. They look for those engrossed in conversations on their phones, texting or into their music, with earphones or Bluetooths being a telltale sign.
"They're using their electronic devices and they're distracted," Valencia said. "They're no longer aware of their environment. (The crooks) catch 'em off guard."
These robberies, he said, begin with a simple question, like, "Got a cigarette?"
That happened in the Crippen case.
Quickly, the crooks produce a weapon usually a knife and demand the victim's phone, iPod or order the victim to empty his pockets.
"They ask you what you've got," Valencia said.
And then you give it.
There are two things to consider to avoid becoming victim: personal safety and gadget security.
The personal safety part is pretty basic: Don't become so locked in on talking, texting or listening to music making your electronic gadgetry so visible that you become oblivious to your surroundings and who is approaching. Certainly, you should be able to go a park, walk down the street or anywhere else without being robbed.
Obviously, thugs don't agree.
Secondly, the Federal Communications Commission and the cell phone carriers are creating a national database intended to track and disable stolen phones, to prevent both identity theft and resale of the phones themselves. Webroot, a computer security provider, reports that major phone carriers soon will launch education programs on how to remotely lock phones, eliminate personal information and track where the phone is being used.
This much is given: Whatever someone has, someone else will want, and try to take it by intimidation or force here, there, everywhere, and even in a small town like Ripon.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.