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iGotcha — cop training helps track down iPhone thieves

A CTA passenger uses an electronic device Brown Line statiMonday.  |  Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

A CTA passenger uses an electronic device at a Brown Line station Monday. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 2, 2012 8:04AM

When a young female robber snatched an iPhone from a woman from New Zealand on a Red Line train on St. Patrick’s Day, the chase was on.

The 42-year-old victim and a good Samaritan pursued the bandit from car to car, off the train and through the Loop. Police stopped the suspect in an alley, but she swore she didn’t have the phone.

Then an officer used an increasingly popular law-enforcement technique: He typed the victim’s Apple ID and password into the Find My iPhone application on his cellphone. Instantly, her stolen phone was pinpointed on a map.

The officers found it nearby, hidden in a red shirt the 17-year-old suspect stripped off during the chase, police said. She was wearing a white tank top when she was caught.

More than 700 electronic devices have been stolen on Chicago Transit Authority property over the past two years.

In one particularly violent case, a woman died last year after her iPhone was grabbed and she was allegedly pushed down the stairs of CTA’s Fullerton station. Prince Watson, 18, was charged with murder and is awaiting trial in Sally Katona-King’s death.

Turning to Apple to combat the thieves

Such robberies have prompted police and CTA to explore new ways to fight iCrooks.

Among them, more than 300 officers from the Chicago Police Department and other federal and local agencies have received free training from the Apple Store at North and Clybourn in hunting for stolen cellphones and iPads.

The officers have learned to use Find My iPhone ­— as well as similar applications that track down other brands of cellphones such as Droids and BlackBerrys.

The training paid off several months ago for an Apple employee robbed of an iPhone near the store, according to a fellow worker. A cop in the store used Find My iPhone to locate the phone in a home. The phone was recovered, and the robber was captured.

The Red Line victim said she’s thankful the officers thought of using Find My iPhone — because she hadn’t.

“They were amazing. I take my hats off to them,” said the victim, who didn’t want her name published.

‘I really love my phone’

The victim, a New Zealand native who lives in Lincoln Park, said she was heading to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration on March 17 when she was approached by the robber, who was in a pack of young people on a northbound Red Line train.

After a chase through the train, the robber jumped off at State and Jackson and ran through the Loop before she was caught near Van Buren and Federal.

Some of the victim’s friends think she was “nuts” to chase down the suspect.

“But I really love my phone,” she said. “I felt personally violated.”

The suspect, Whitney Martin of the Park Manor neighborhood on the South Side, was charged with robbery. She was being held in the Cook County Jail in lieu of $30,000 bail.

Police and CTA pointed to two other cases this year in which officers recovered stolen phones using tracking technology. The victims got their phones back and the suspects were captured. CTA’s expanding surveillance-camera network showed the suspects fleeing, said CTA safety director Araceli de la Cruz.

Turning stolen phones into bricks

John Graeber, commander of the Chicago Police Department’s public transportation section, said he has been using a mix of covert operations and technology such as phone finders and surveillance cameras to catch robbers.

Robberies on CTA property are down 38 percent this year through April 24, compared with the same period of 2011. Despite the drop in CTA crime, cellphones remain hot commodities for thieves on trains and buses, Graeber said. Stolen iPhones go for more than $200 each on the black market, he said.

Graeber hopes the underground market will evaporate after mobile phone carriers create a worldwide database of cellphone ID numbers they’ll use to track stolen cellphones — and render them useless.

The phone carriers will start building the database in October and are expected to finish the work in late 2013.

“These thugs who grab your phone will walk into a flea market and the phone will be worthless,” Graeber said. “They’ll be like bricks.”

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