How to keep your phone safe from street thieves

Thefts of smartphones and other expensive handheld gadgets are on the rise, since criminals see them as easy pickings for very little risk. What Mobile’s Alex Walls explains how to keep the thieves at bay

You might have seen the CCTV footage: a man on a bike cycles past someone using their mobile phone in the street. In a matter of seconds, their thumbs are tapping thin air, the bike is gone and so is their phone.
So what can you do to prevent mobile phone theft? We’ve asked some experts this question to find out about some common (as well as some more unusual) phone theft techniques and what you can do to protect yourself.


Last year more than 800,000 people had their phones stolen. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently released its Crime Survey for England and Wales, which show these 826,000 people (to be precise) represent a small increase on previous years, thanks to greater phone ownership, with 81 per cent of residents in England and Wales owning a mobile phone (the ONS doesn’t differentiate between a mobile phone and a smartphone, to keep wording consistent).

The Metropolitan Police found that 28,800 iPhones out of 56,680 mobiles in total were stolen between April and September last year in London, equating to 158 iPhones stolen on average per day, and 314 phones of all types.

Teenagers and young adult owners were more likely than any other age group to have had their phone stolen in the past 12 months, with four in 100 mobile phone owners aged 14 to 24 a victim of phone theft in the past year due to a combination of high rates of ownership and high rates of theft.

While the percentages of phone theft victims among male and female owners in the past year were similar, at 1.8 and 1.9 per cent respectively (translating to about 397,000 male victims and 429,000 female victims), differentiating by both age and sex showed that among younger age groups, boys were at more risk of theft, with boys aged 10 to 13 at higher risk than girls of the same age. However, among 18 to 24-year-olds, women were at more risk, with 5.2 per cent of women having their phone stolen in the last year compared with three per cent of men. This meant women aged 18 to 24 were at the highest risk of mobile phone theft, ONS said, with one in 20 experiencing a theft in the past year.


National Mobile Phone Crime Unit detective inspector Mark Loving says central London and Westminster are hotspots for mobile crime theft because of the nightlife and the thriving economy in the area.

Common techniques used by thieves are distraction and ‘table surfing’, whereby thieves go into pubs, bars or restaurants, identify a mobile phone or wallet on a table top, and then use a distraction technique, such as laying a map over the top of the table and asking for directions. When the map is removed, so is the phone.

Sleight of hand is also common, with thieves turning to pickpocketing when not table surfing, generally, Det Insp Loving says. Things like putting a phone down on a bar next to you could be targeted, with criminals possibly asking for a drink or engaging bar staff in conversation, then very slightly nudging you and making a small scene of apologising in order to create an attention gap to steal the phone.

“They will look at and identify unattended property very, very quickly,” Det Insp Loving says.
The good news is that mobile phone theft by force is not the most commonly used technique – normally distraction techniques are employed, often at night, to rob people who have been drinking who are targeted because of their reduced level of awareness, he adds.


Specialist security firm Vigilante Bespoke co-founder Oliver Crofton said recently that several London clients had reported phone theft using a distraction technique involving a moped: a person walking down the street has their mobile device snatched out of their hands by someone driving past on a moped, sometimes accompanied by a blow to the head to daze the person initially. The thief then speeds off on the moped so the victim cannot catch them.

Another common technique, recently reported by a client, is theft from a bag in a Tube station, Crofton says.

The client had reached into a compartment of her bag to take out her ticket, removing her phone at the same time. Replacing the phone in the compartment but leaving it unzipped, she passed through the barrier.
“From going through the barrier through to sitting on the train, someone had taken the mobile from her bag,” says Crofton.

This was a common area for thieves to access bags, who need only a short window of time, he added.
Table surfing is nothing new but is becoming more common, Crofton says. Vigilante has dealt with a number of people who have had this happen to them, including a celebrity client who had his phone stolen while sitting outside a cafe, with his phone on the table. The client gave chase and caught the thief, who pulled out a knife and threatened to stab him if he tried to get his phone back. The client decided to claim insurance instead, Crofton says.

Christmas parties are always a popular instance of phone theft, he says, where people are drinking and leave phones in bags, coats, or on tables.

Telecoms provider Livvy’s Group managing director Mark Bowman says the company ships a lot of phones to clients which are “lost in transit”, where the box containing the mobiles has been opened, although there is no clue as to how, and the phone taken, regardless of which courier or service is used.
The company, which provides insurance, has a lot of claims for this type of mobile phone loss, he says.

Many mobile phone insurance claims are for London, he says, although this could also be due to the high concentration of people living in the city.

Bowman also said distraction was a common technique, whether at a bar or at work, sometimes with groups of people targeting a specific event, such as a conference or team night out, and “bombarding” it, using distractions to take belongings such as mobile phones in bulk.

Written by: Paul Withers – Mobile News issue 549 October 7, 2013