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Laptop thieves descend upon wireless cafes

Laptop thieves descend upon wireless cafes
Laptop thieves descend upon wireless cafes 

Jaxon Van Derbeken
Chronicle Staff Writer
April 8, 2006

A San Francisco finance manager stopped in at a Mission District cafe
and was tapping on his laptop as he enjoyed his coffee just before
noon on a Thursday. Suddenly, he was under siege.

"I looked up, and I saw this guy leaning into me as if he was asking a
question,'' he said. "I leaned forward, and out of the corner of my
eye, I saw someone fiddling with the computer cord. I tried to stand
up, and as I stepped back, he stabbed me in the chest.''

The attack marked a violent turn in a wave of crime that has hit the
city -- the "hot spots" frequented by wireless laptop users are
becoming hot spots for laptop robberies.

The 40-year-old San Francisco victim of the March 16 attack suffered a
partially collapsed lung and was hospitalized for six days. The two
suspects fled with his Apple PowerBook, worth $2,500.

"This poor guy, who got stabbed, all he did was kind of stand up ...  
and almost instantaneously the guy stabbed him,'' said Inspector
Robert Lynch of the San Francisco police robbery detail. "The whole
thing was over in 15 seconds.''

Police say normally quiet cafes are becoming hunting grounds for
laptop bandits.

"Now that we have these hot zones, people are bringing laptops out in
the street, using them in public cafes,'' said police Lt. John Loftus
of the robbery detail.

San Francisco police statistics show a disturbing trend. Just 18
laptop computer robberies were logged in 2004, but the figure jumped
to 48 last year. There were 18 as of the end of March, a pace that
could surpass 70 crimes this year.

"It's a changing culture, and crime is following it,'' Loftus said.  
"To the criminal element, this is a valuable piece of equipment that
they can quite easily cash in on -- even otherwise law-abiding people
are tempted to buy $3,000 laptops for $200 to $300 on the street.''

"Where else do you have a thousand-dollar item sitting on a table in a
coffee shop?''

So far, San Francisco appears to the only major Bay Area city to be
hit by the problem. San Jose has been hit by laptop thefts, but it has
yet to experience many of the robberies. "We haven't seen it yet,''
said Sgt. Nick Muyo of the San Jose police.

Palo Alto hasn't had any, and Berkeley, another hot area for Internet
cafes, had only one such crime about a year ago, investigators said.  
Oakland police investigators had not heard of any such crimes, either.

San Francisco's Western Addition area has been hard hit this year,
with 11 robberies so far. Park Station Capt. John Ehrlich, who
oversees the area, said he has met with the community, giving the
message that people need to fasten down their computers and back up
their data.

The victim in San Francisco's Mission Creek Cafe stabbing, who
requested that his name not be used, said since he was attacked, his
friends from New York have urged him to go back there. It's safer,
they say.

"I was lucky. It was the only place he could have stabbed me where it
didn't hit a heart or other organ,'' he said. Still, he said, his
chest cavity filled with blood. As for the information on his laptop,
he wisely had backed it up on a disk after he heard a friend had lost

Lynch said a videotape at the cafe was not much use in the
investigation, and police have little to go on.

"One (suspect) was roughly 15, one was roughly 20, that was it -- it's
really frustrating,'' Lynch said.

Lynch said stolen computers are sold on the street and even over the
Internet. "They go to U.N. Plaza, where it's like a stolen-goods
bazaar. All you have to do is drive by, you see them out there.''

Lynch said people working on the high-priced computers are easy

"You walk by any Starbucks and you see people with a laptop, it's so
tempting for the crooks. They walk in, right on top of the person, and
the person has all their attention on the laptop. They snatch it right
out from underneath their fingertips.

"The word is out with crooks in general,'' Lynch said.

Some cafes have taken precautions, installing security leashes for
laptops and even posting employees to act as observers at doors. Lynch
said a leash would prevent some thefts. But posting someone at the
door could be risky. Lynch said that in Europe, video monitors are
posted and signs warn patrons that they are being watched.

Lynch said resisting can be risky.

"It's a tough call -- I would fight to maintain my laptop, but you run
the risk of ending up like this guy, getting stabbed.''

"We don't need to scare people,'' Loftus emphasized. "People just need
to be careful with their laptops.''

Police are considering using police decoys in hard-hit areas.

"It's hard to do a stakeout,'' Capt. Ehrlich said, "because it's not
happening with any regularity in time or place.''

Besides, such operations are costly in resources, he said. "It's a lot
of lattes.''

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