Put your hands in the air! This is an iHoldup!

In Apple's (AAPL) biggest-ever unintended product launch, a mini-crime wave is rolling out across the nation as crooks, just like the rest of us, clamor to get their hands on the tech giant's latest gadgets.

And the recently debuted iPhone 5, it appears, has quickly become the smartphone de rigueur for thieves and robbers throughout the land, with the island of Manhattan perhaps the most fertile spot of all.

"When news came out that sales of the iPhone 5 were going to be huge, we thought, 'Great, there goes our crime rate,'" said New York City police spokesman Paul Browne. If it weren't for the 40 percent spike so far this year in thefts and robberies of Apple products, he said, the city's crime would actually have dropped a bit compared with 2011.

Browne's comments came as his boss, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, was addressing fellow chiefs of police for a national meeting in San Diego, filling them in on a growing problem in cities around the country. And, said Browne, it's getting worse.

"Just before the new iPhone came out, we had a record low in thefts for the year. It's as if the criminals were waiting for the new version. After all, why steal an iPhone 4S when they can steal an iPhone 5?"


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But Apple thievery is by no means confined to the Big Apple.

"We're seeing robberies daily of all smartphones," said San Francisco police spokesman Albie Esparza, adding that victims are losing iPhones, iPads and MP3 players as well as Android devices. "And whether it's simple thefts, or robberies with force using a gun or a knife, nine times out of 10 it involves mobile devices.

"And," said Esparza, "it's increasing every day with people getting hit all over the city."

Despite public-information campaigns to educate citizens about the importance of staying alert in public places, especially when using mass transit, the number of incidents shows little sign of abatement. Esparza said that through the end of August, there were 2,374 robberies, and of those 1,199 involved cellphones.

"And the bad guys are violent, too," he said. "They're whipping out guns and assaulting people for their phones. Then basically they do a quick turnaround and sell it on the black market somewhere in the city, where they make a profit and then go rob more people."

Other Bay Area cities and transit agencies report similar trends, with Apple products often topping the most-stolen list.

"iPhones are more popular than Android devices," said Officer Era Jenkins with BART police. "They're also grabbing iPads, but it's mostly the iPhone that people want to get their hands on."

Jenkins said that in 2010, there was a total of 165 thefts or robberies of "electronic devices" on BART property; in 2011, that number climbed to 206, an increase of 25 percent; and as of the end of August this year, the number already stood at 235, with four months still to go.

In Hayward, police say they've worked 40 cases this year involving the theft of items identified as "Apple," including the iPod touch, iPhones and iPads. That city did not have immediate comparisons with past years. Other departments have not begun to break down mobile-device thefts by brand as New York City has done. But most agencies agree: the iPhone's snatchable size and growing popularity ensure it will remain among the criminal's most sought-after booty.

As one blog commenter put in on an East Bay listserv for a neighborhood that's been hit hard by iPhone thefts recently, "phones, ipads, kindles ... technology is so awesome and makes life super convenient, but it also makes you a target for petty criminals. The muggings / break-ins aren't going to stop anytime soon, especially when there are so many people wandering down the street, distracted by their fancy gadgets."

Bay Area News Group staff writers Harry Harris and Natalie Alund contributed to this report. Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689; follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.

tips to help you hold on to that iPhone
  • Be aware of your surroundings and the people around you.
  • Don't allow your attention to become distracted from your property.
  • If you are using an iPhone, don't use the standard issue white headphones as these are identified with the devices.
  • Use the security features, such as a security code login, to protect your information from identity theft.
  • If you are a victim of a crime, do not resist. Work with police and use a "find-your-phone" app to track down your missing device, lock it, or remotely delete any data it contains.
  • If you see a theft in progress, call 911.
    Source: SF Muni