GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) - More than 100 cell phone stores across southern Michigan have been targeted by fast-moving thieves who are selling the stolen phones to drug dealers or shipping them overseas.
The FBI, Michigan State Police, and dozens of local police agencies are investigating break-ins that began in March, 2013, all sharing similarities. At least six people have been arrested, all from the Detroit area.
Police place the value of the stolen cell phones at more than $1 million. Markets include on-line auction sites and criminal organizations overseas, said Michigan State Police detective Sgt. Robert Davis.
"They've been targeting stores over in Detroit for some time, so those stores have been taking measures to keep them from doing that, so they come over to areas they see as soft and it's easier to do the job,'' Davis said.
He estimates that at least 30 cell phone stores have been hit in West Michigan from the state border north to Cadillac.
"The person actually stealing the phone will get between $400 and $600 for a high-priced iPhone, but the person who gets that phone and resells it, he may get up to $1,000 depending on what market he's selling in,'' Davis said.
It's hard to determine how many groups are engaged in the break-ins, although they all share similar patterns. Thieves hit stores in the predawn hours, using a crow bar to pry open rear doors. They go to specific display cases and steal high-end smart phones, which are put in cloth laundry bags.
They're often dressed in dark clothing and wearing gloves hats or hoods. They're in and out of the store in less than two minutes.
"We know there's multiple groups involved,'' Davis said.
One group was arrested in Monroe County on Jan. 3 after breaking into a pharmacy in Lambertville and stealing more than 80 prescription medications, court records show. Inside the vehicle police found a yellow crowbar and two plaid-style tote bags.
Then in late April, Portage police arrested four Detroit area men believed responsible for breaking into a cell phone store in Battle Creek several hours earlier. Police were watching the Portage cell phone store when the suspect's vehicle pulled up.
The four were charged in Calhoun County with possession of burglary tools and are suspects in three cell phone store break-ins in Allendale and Norton Shores on April 8.
"They actually left the basic phones so they were targeting smart phones, Iphones, you name it,'' said Jake Lowing, manager of the Allendale Sprint store on Lake Michigan Drive. "They were in and out in two minutes – extremely quick.''
Lowing recommends people buying phones from on-line auction services check the phone's serial number, labelled ESN DEC or HEX. By calling the phone's manufacturer and providing the number, they can determine its history, including if it was reported stolen.
Technology is making it harder for thieves to cash in, especially when taking a cell phone from a purse or during a street robbery.
When street thugs get a cell phone, it often works to their disadvantage, Grand Rapids Police Lt. Patrick Merrill said. Cell phone companies can quickly locate the whereabouts of a stolen cell phone through ping technology, which helps police arrest the thief.
"There are new iPhone apps that will take a picture of the person entering the wrong pass code,'' Merrill said. "In many cases, the technology assists us.''