With a gun pointed at his chest, Juan Ayala quickly stuffed the bag with cash and cellphones. As he grabbed the phones one by one from the storage room shelves in the back of a Galt AT&T store, the gunman became increasingly anxious.
Three minutes of terror elapsed before Ayala and the thief heard a customer walk in. Frantically, the gunman, dressed like a construction worker, stepped out of the storage room and said, “Someone will be with you soon.”
Time was up.
The gunman rushed into the back, piled the phones into the bag himself and left.
Last Thursday, for the second time in five weeks, Parrot Cellular, in the 1000 block of C Street, fell victim to an armed robbery. Both times Ayala, the store’s manager, was working. Those terrifying incidents reflect a national trend: Smartphone thefts and robberies are on the rise, and law enforcement officials are pressing phone companies to develop technology that would deter thieves.
More than 1.6 million Americans were victims of smartphone theft last year, according to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, and stores in Lodi, Elk Grove, Galt and other local towns have been targets as well.
“This has become a national epidemic,” Gascon said in a statement. “Unlike other types of crimes, smartphone theft can be eradicated with a simple technological solution.”
The Galt AT&T retail store is the most recent cellphone outlet to be robbed or burglarized in the area. Ayala said the same suspect was behind both incidents.
In early May, a dark-skinned man wearing a hooded sweatshirt walked in carrying two empty duffle bags and a knife. He ordered Ayala and a female employee into the storage room at knifepoint and took 14 smartphones.
Last week, the thief loitered inside the store, waiting for customers to leave, Ayala said. When the last customer left, the suspect turned around. Ayala first saw the gun, and then recognized the gunman, who stole 26 iPhones.
“I was scared and just wanted to help him get in and get out so he didn’t hurt anyone,” Ayala said.
During both robberies, the thief appeared more interested in the smartphones than cash, Ayala said.
Thieves burglarized two cellphone outlets in Lodi last Christmas Eve, according to Lodi Police. In one instance, they broke in through the front door before grabbing cash and cellphones. During the second burglary, the thieves smashed a front window and pillaged the store. The suspects were never caught, according to Lodi PD.
So far two cellphone stores have been burglarized in Elk Grove this year, according to Elk Grove Police.
People are increasingly becoming the victims of cellphone theft as well.
This year, there have been 467 reported thefts or robberies involving cellphones, according to Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
In San Francisco, more than half of all robberies involve a cellphone, according to Gascon.
Sacramento County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Ramos said there are many reasons cellphones are frequent targets. Most people carry cellphones. If the thief takes it, it’ll take the victim longer to call 911. And many thieves are teenagers, and a cellphone could be a status symbol, Ramos said.
Ayala adds that customers routinely buy cellphones from his store and sell them overseas for as much as $700. According to the California Department of Justice, smartphones can be sold overseas for more than they cost in the U.S.
On Thursday, Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will meet with representatives from Apple Inc., Google Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and Microsoft Corp. to discuss developing a “kill switch,” which will quickly disable stolen smartphones, rendering them worthless to thieves.
“Despite the growing threat to public safety, cellphone manufacturers and carriers continue to look the other way,” Gascon said. “It’s time that corporations take social responsibility and do their part to end the victimization of hundreds of thousands of Americans.”
For now, Parrot Cellular has taken steps to prevent another robbery by hiring a security guard.
“We’ll have security at this location until further notice,” Ayala said.
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.