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Thieves target unsuspecting transit riders, snatch phones

Thieves target unsuspecting transit riders, snatch phones »Play Video
A suspected cellphone thief (right) dashes out the door of a TriMet MAX train. The suspect's face is blurred because he is a juvenile.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Brazen thieves on TriMet trains and buses have been swiping cellphones out of people's hands and taking off.

Transit police have caught 53 people in all. They call the thefts "Apple picking" – named after the popular Apple iPhone.

The TriMet police division saw a big spike in the snatch-and-grab thefts on MAX trains and buses, and two officers managed track down all those suspects over the course of nine months.

The thefts were caught on TriMet cameras.

In one case a suspect on the MAX scopes out an unsuspecting victim who is talking on a cellphone. As soon as the doors open, the suspect grabs the phone from his victim and dashes out the door.

In another case on a TriMet bus, the robber again times his escape for when the bus door opens.

Two TriMet police officers put in 190 hours going through video and tracking down the suspects in order to crack the cases.

"It went both ways. Sometimes we'd see the video and we'd immediately recognize them as someone that we'd contacted previously. A lot of times, we'd see the video and we didn't know who they were," said TriMet police officer Kristi Butcher.

"The suspects, most of the time, they were juveniles," said TriMet police officer Brandon Gentry. "Not having the resources available through DMV photographs – doing old-school investigations, trying to talk to people and talk to their associates and get them to name the individuals that were actually stealing the phones."

All of the thefts happened at MAX stops and bus stops right when the doors opened or were about to close.

It was about this time last year that those thefts spiked – up to 20 in one month.

TriMet warns passengers to be aware of what's going on around them, especially at transit stops.

The thieves turn those stolen items around quickly. In one case about 30 minutes after the theft, the phone was on Craigslist and within an hour it was sold.

Police say people should think of the phones as if they were $400-worth of cash in their hands and keep them protected.