Ring the Alarm: Phone Thieves Hitting the Dance Floor

Webster HallRoey Ahram Webster Hall

On a recent Sunday morning, a reporter for The Local was slouched over the sales counter of a Verizon store, buying a replacement for the Android that had been lifted from her purse the night before, at Hotel Chantelle. As it happened, two women walked in complaining loudly that their phones had been stolen from a restaurant two blocks away from the Lower East Side nightspot, on the same night.

The Grey Lady is a Nantucket-themed restaurant that escalates into a raucous party on Fridays and Saturdays. As at Hotel Chantelle, the music screams, the liquor flows and the crowd presses elbow to elbow. It’s the perfect setting for pickpockets, and they’re after one thing in particular: at downtown’s nightlife destinations, phone theft has become a fixture just like bespoke cocktails and blasé hipsters.

In the seventh precinct, which covers the Lower East Side, grand larceny is up 11 percent this year compared to last year, while overall crime is down 18 percent. In the ninth precinct, which covers the East Village, grand larceny is up 17 percent while overall crime is down 8.7 percent. The increase in larceny was due in large part to cellphone theft, a police source in the ninth precinct said.

On Feb. 9, Jessie Gonthier, 27, was at the Grey Lady for a friend’s birthday celebration. Early in the night, she unzipped her purse, which hung across her body, and realized that her iPhone was missing. Thinking that she must have dropped it, she tracked down the manager. “The manager said that no phones were turned in, but there was already another girl talking to him about her phone being missing,” Ms. Gonthier said.

By the end of the night, Ms. Gonthier had seen about five people claim their phones were stolen, she said.

phoneJoanna Marshall

The Grey Lady isn’t the only venue that has been targeted by phone snatchers. The Local has reported similar incidents at Solas, Webster Hall, Bowery Electric, Village Tavern, La Palapa, The 13th Step, and Affaire, to name just a few.

During an electronica show at Webster Hall, Leah Cheng, 24, caught a thief with his hand in her purse. “My purse has a zipper and a latch and he had them both open in a flash. It happened at 2 a.m. right when the music kicked up, as the headlining D.J. came on stage,” she said. “These guys are professionals. They know exactly what they’re doing.”

Ms. Cheng, who works for an interior design firm, is a regular at Webster Hall and has seen phone robberies unfold numerous times, she said. “Generally I notice two or three people surround the victim to create confusion – maybe one guy bumps the girl or spills a drink on her. As she looks away, they reach right into her purse,” Ms. Cheng said.

“At the end of the night you can see piles of phone covers lying on the ground,” she added. “My friend bent down and grabbed like five after a show.” Webster Hall did not return requests for comment.

For a large, established concert venue, a rise in phone theft might not impact business very much. But for a small restaurant like The Grey Lady, which opened at Delancey and Allen Streets less than a year ago, a reputation for theft would be especially unwelcome.

“We certainly don’t want people to feel scared to come by,” said Ryan Chadwick, the restaurant’s co-owner, who was “horrified” when the guests reported the thefts to him the night of Feb. 9.

About 10 percent of stolen smartphones are recovered within two to five months, said the police source. As it turned out, the incident at the Grey Lady was one of those rare happy endings.

Mr. Chadwick immediately called the police, and a day later a sergeant from the seventh precinct showed up to review his security footage. “He told us that the N.Y.P.D. had been tracking these four guys who were working as a team, hitting a few different places in the area.” The security staff was put on alert and sure enough, the same group showed up the next Saturday.

“Our security recognized the guys from the mug shots that the police had given us and we were able to stop them from coming in,” said Mr. Chadwick. After he tipped off the police, officers caught up with the group at 4:25 a.m. and arrested Carlberson Joseph and another suspect outside of Pianos. Mr. Joseph, 22, has been charged with grand larceny and awaits a May 5 hearing, according to the police.

In addition to such footwork, the police department is “working closely” with Apple to find ways to track phones when they are turned off, said the source in the ninth precinct.

Jessie Gonthier found out the hard way that GPS-based applications like Find My iPhone aren’t necessarily useful in the event that a phone is snatched. According to the Verizon sales clerk, the app is handy if you lose your phone – not so much if your phone has been stolen and powered down.

“If you call your phone and it goes to voicemail, it’s gone for good. Game over,” said the sales clerk.

Don’t Be a Victim
Police sources and a cellphone-store clerk recommended these preventative measures.
• Be especially cautious between First Avenue and Broadway, where most of the East Village cases of larceny occur. Also in nightlife-heavy areas.
• Never put your phone on a table, counter or bar top. Just don’t do it.
• Keep your phone in a pocket that’s close to the chest or inside a jacket, rather than in your hand or purse.
• Don’t use your phone while sitting or standing by subway doors; phones are often grabbed as the doors are closing.
• Register your phone with the N.Y.P.D.
• Do report a stolen phone, since it helps the police determine where and when the thefts are happening, increasing the likelihood of an arrest.
• Be especially careful if you have an Apple device. According to Mayor Bloomberg’s end of year radio address there were 3,890 more thefts of Apple products in 2012 than in 2011.