Walking slowly in a hooded sweatshirt along Market Street is a police officer named Tom Lee, who is playing the role of decoy in a sting operation targeting buyers of stolen iPhones. According to The Huffington Post, the officer engages people he encounters along the way, offering them three stolen iPhones, “each still sealed in a white box affixed with Apple’s logo”, while wearing a small recording device taped to his chest.
In order to protect the officer, two nearby undercover officers blend into the crowd, armed with guns to protect Lee should the deal go bad, while a block away, two more officers sit in an unmarked car, awaiting Lee’s signal for them to make an arrest. Lee and his team are part of a special task force established three years ago to combat phone thefts here, mirroring similar undercover teams set up in New York and Washington D.C.
They have not chosen this corner at random. The intersection of Seventh and Market is San Francisco’s primary open-air market for stolen electronics, police say. Given that nearly half of San Francisco residents own an iPhone — the highest rate of any city in the nation — this stolen phone bazaar amounts to a crucial conduit in an illicit, increasingly global trade.
Police say stolen phones bought here are often resold overseas — in part to avoid a domestic blacklist being established by American wireless carriers — eventually fetching as much as $1,000 at markets scattered from Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro. The total value of lost or stolen phones in the U.S. is about $30 billion a year.
For Lee and his partners, shutting down this marketplace has become their primary objective. The team aims to poison the market with fear and deprive potential sellers of a place to offer their stolen iPhones.