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Crime Wave of laptop thefts in Bay Area feeding massive black market

16:55  16 january  2020
16:55  16 january  2020 Source:   sfchronicle.com

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It's at a point in the Bay Area where one must often think twice before using a laptop in public due to the increase in device thefts . Law enforcement have

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Thieves are snatching laptops from unsuspecting victims with alarming audacity and violence, officials say, driven by a lucrative Bay Area black market where crooks can fetch $500 for a new Apple computer that could end up in Asia.

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Two recent high-profile Oakland crimes — a deadly laptop grab at Starbucks and a bus-stop shooting sparked by a computer theft — offer a glimpse into a growing regional trend that has put people on edge.

“I’ve been hugging my laptop a little closer,” said Caroline Steel, 23, while working on a Mac at Haus Coffee in San Francisco’s Mission District. Signs warning patrons of computer snatchers went up in June after the coffee shop was hit repeatedly by thieves, a barista said.

Property crimes involving electronic devices have risen nationwide in recent years along with the skyrocketing value of tech products that people carry everywhere, said Oakland police spokeswoman Johnna Watson.

“Whether you are walking down the street with it in your hand or you’re somewhere with a laptop at a table, that’s like having $1,000 or $2,000 sitting on a table,” Watson said.

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But the trend is particularly troubling in the Bay Area. Reported laptop thefts increased by nearly 40% last year in Berkeley, with 85 in 2019 and 61 in 2018. BART officials reported 1,266 robberies and thefts of electronics, mostly cell phones, in 2019. But few other agencies track these crimes separately. San Francisco and Oakland police were unable to provide numbers for laptop thefts.

“We are outpacing the rest of the state in our increase in this type of crime,” said Marisa McKeown, a deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County who heads the Criminal Strategies Unit. “The Bay Area is not the only place with electronics — but our offender population has gotten very good at (stealing them).”

Auto burglary numbers provide an “almost direct comparison” to computer thefts because laptops are the No. 1 item stolen from cars.

San Francisco’s auto burglaries increased nearly 44% from 20,661 in 2016 to 29,736 in 2017, according to a 10-year study conducted by McKeown’s crime analysis team. Los Angeles, with more than four times the population, had roughly 18,000 auto burglaries in 2017. The number of auto burglaries in Oakland jumped from 6,308 in 2016 to 8,545 in 2017, according to the study.

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Thieves snatch laptops from cars, stores or cafes and quickly exchange them for cash at local fencing operations, McKeown said. New Apple laptops — the hot commodity right now — can go for up to $500 or $600 apiece, while off-brand or older laptops could get $50 to $100. The electronics get shipped as far as Australia and the Middle East.

Lt. Steven Nowak, an Oakland criminal investigator, said criminals target “low-hanging fruit” — easy crimes with high profits.

“Imagine being 19 years old, making $1,000 a day only working four to five hours,” he said.

It’s difficult to prevent these burglaries and thefts, so McKeown said law enforcement agencies are strategically targeting fencing operations. Agencies are cracking down on the sale of stolen goods.

In November, Fremont police busted a Hayward electronics business and recovered 1,800 stolen electronic devices. An unprecedented bust in December of a San Francisco fencing operation recovered stolen laptops and other goods valued at $2.5 million.

“What we’re doing is going after the people who are funding this crime,” McKeown said.

On Friday, Brian Veivia opened his door after he heard a loud bang in his North Oakland neighborhood. A man outside lay facedown at a bus stop screaming for his life.

“I opened the door to our house and heard a man yelling, ‘Somebody help me! I don’t want to die like this — it wasn’t worth it!’” Veivia recalled.

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The 33-year-old former paramedic dashed outside with his medical bag and heard the victim telling dispatchers over the phone what happened moments before: He was sitting at the bus stop working on his laptop when a masked man approached and asked for the computer.

It was unclear if the victim refused or didn’t comply fast enough, Veivia said. “But either way, the guy shot him and took his laptop,” he said.

Veivia gave the victim gauze to cover the hole where the bullet had pierced his hip. The victim was taken to the hospital, and police confirmed on Tuesday that he was in stable condition.

Veivia is careful in his neighborhood, especially at night when he walks home from BART or walks his dog. He puts his phone away and takes out his headphones.

“Things like that — just to make sure I’m not looking like an easy target,” he said.

Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb, who represents the district where Friday’s shooting occurred, said he hopes to work with police to fill vacancies in the department and increase visibility of officers to deter criminals. Nowak said the department is increasing patrols for better visibility in high-crime areas and working to educate people to better protect themselves.

Kalb said he has seen an increase in strong-arm robberies and thefts in his district in the past few months. Businesses and cafes along College and Telegraph avenues have reported thefts of electronics, he said.

“It’s frustrating to everybody,” Kalb said. “People need to be able to feel safe in their neighborhood.”

The bus-stop shooting came two weeks after 34-year-old Shuo Zeng of Oakland was killed when he tried to recover his laptop from thieves who snatched it in a Montclair Starbucks and then ran him over in the getaway car as he tried to stop them.

Tim Branyen, another Haus Coffee customer, said reading about that incident made him wonder what he would do if his laptop were snatched. His instinct would be to chase the crook, he said, but then reconsidered.

“Maybe my life’s a little more important than a laptop that can get replaced,” the San Francisco tech worker said.

Haus Coffee barista Mike Luangrath said people should not chase thieves.

“It’s not worth it,” Luangrath said.

Anna Bauman is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: anna.bauman@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @abauman2

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