SEPTA sees cell phone thefts decline for first time in three years

phone-phl_thefts_SEPTA2_4c_5
Metro file photo. Credit: Rikard Larma

Following three consecutive years of rising cell phone thefts and robberies throughout the SEPTA transit system, officials are finally feeling a reprieve.

SEPTA officials from Jan. 1 through Aug. 18 recorded 217 cell phone thefts and 51 cell phone robberies.

That’s a decline of 7 and 14 percent, respectively, over the same period last year.

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III said a technological innovation three years ago first touched off an explosion of cell-related crime on the transit system.

“In 2010, AT&T made the use of their phone line available in the el and the subway,” he said.

“So the result then is that people don’t keep their phone in their pocket and have their phone in their hands and are using them. So ever since 2010 when AT&T enabled service in the system, the number of phone thefts and robberies skyrocketed – they went up very high in 2011 and continued to go up in 2012. We’re seeing a decrease now and we’re hoping to hold steady on that.”

SEPTA responded to the rise with several initiatives – shifting staffing levels to ensure more transit police are available in the hours when thefts and robberies are most likely to occur, launching undercover decoy operations and encouraging transit riders to install GPS tracking apps on their devices.

An avid Twitter user, Nestel has also taken to social media to circulate information about suspects and crime patterns.

“In my eyes, it’s a great way to get the message out to our riders about what’s going on and what we’re doing about it, and to make people feel safer because, overall, the system is a safe place to ride,” he said.

Despite the tenuously encouraging statistics, Nestel said he’s not yet ready to declare victory.

“We’re very involved in tracking people who commit thefts and robberies in the system and we’re tenacious about catching them, so I’m hoping all of that is having a positive effect, but I really am reluctant to pat myself on the back,” he said, noting only time will tell if SEPTA’s efforts are directly contributing to the decreased numbers of if the decline is part of a more widespread trend.

SEPTA’s top cop did have some words of advice for cell phone-toting commuters.

“If you’re on a train, stop using the phone when it’s pulling into the station – just that period of time as you’re pulling into the station and waiting for people to board,” he said.

“When the doors close, you can go back to using the phone. On the platform, I’d just ask you to every couple minutes look around and see who’s paying attention to you and who’s looking at your phone. If people were just a tiny little bit more aware of their surroundings, I think they could do a lot to help us get these numbers down.”

By the numbers

217 Cell phone thefts were recorded by SEPTA officials from Jan. 1 through Aug. 18.

234 Cell phone thefts were recorded during the same time period last year.

7% The year-over-year decline in cell phone thefts.

51 Cell phone robberies were recorded by SEPTA officials from Jan. 1 through Aug. 18.

59 Cell phone robberies were recorded during the same period last year.

14% The year-over-year decline in cell phone robberies.


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