How my iPhone was stolen on the train (and how to make sure yours isn’t)

Reading on the bus

This is what I was doing. In fact, this is what I’m always doing when I’m riding buses or trains. But tonight, as I was riding the Blue Line home from a fantastic day riding bikes in Long Beach, someone plucked my iPhone right out of my hand and sprinted off into the night. Just like that.

My friend Molly and I had spent plenty of time choosing our seats for the ride home. Since we had our bikes, we picked seats at the center of the car, so we could stick our bikes in that funny accordion-like space, and sit right in front of them. Funnily enough, earlier in the day we had figured out we were both reading the same OMG SO GOOD book, The Marriage Plot, Molly in hardback, me on—what else?—my iPhone. We had agreed that because the book was OMG SO GOOD, and because the ride back to LA was so long, we were both going to read all the way home.

At the Grand station, just one stop away from where we were getting off, and just when I was getting to a really, really good part in my book, a single black knit glove plunged across the page and gently took the phone from my hand.

It took me a moment to figure out what happened. I remember reflecting on what a brief, graceful gesture it was.

And then I looked up to see a man swiftly exiting the train with my phone in hand.

I ran after him—and I was fully prepared to break into marathon-mode and chase his ass all the way to Santa Monicabut I paused at the door as it closed, realizing that my bike and my purse were still on the train. Would I have ran after him if I didn’t have my bike on the train? I think I might have, which may have been even stupider.

According to a San Francisco Chronicle article (via Daring Fireball), iPhones have become more lucrative than wallets, and more thieves are resorting to violence to get them: “It’s the modern day purse snatch—with better odds,” says one officer. So I thought it was a good time to review a few basics when it comes to your phone and riding transit. Maybe you know this stuff. But it’s always good to get a reminder, so here goes.

Hold your valuables responsibly. Duh, right? I thought I was good at being aware of my belongings. But look at how I was sitting tonight. I held my phone up in the air, at eye-level, in the aisle seat, a glowing, tantalizing treat. I didn’t even have my purse over my shoulder, which he very easily could have grabbed as well. I could have moved to the window seat and cradled my phone in my lap, which might have made my phone less appealing—or at least less visible.

Pay attention. Phone suck us in and force us to tune out the rest of the world, which makes us very easy targets. I was so enthralled with my book—because this book is awesome, you guys—that I was completely oblivious to anything around me. Headphones make the situation even worse; I actually never wear them in public for this reason. But maybe on those long, late train rides it’s better to put everything away and just focus on what’s happening around you.

Yell something like “That man in the black hat stole my iPhone.” As the guy took off down the platform, here’s what this eloquent, articulate professional writer screamed: “FUCK YOU!” To everyone around us, it probably looked like we were having some kind of relationship drama. I should have been more specific about why exactly I was chasing this guy, and then maybe someone on the platform would have at least seen what was happening and helped slow him down.

Ask everyone around you for details about what just happened. The reason why you have to ask them is because you probably won’t remember a thing. Luckily my fellow riders were supremely helpful in this department. The people behind us explained what they saw (unfortunately, not much). About five minutes late—but better late than never!—I suddenly something clicked in my head and I snapped into journalist mode, gathering information. I remembered to take note of the number of the car we were in and some basic details about what the guy was wearing.

File a police report. I wouldn’t have thought it would make any difference, but just before we got off the train, a guy encouraged me to find a Metro policeman and file a report. When I stepped off the train, I saw two LA County Sheriff officers and told them what happened. They were very helpful (and, thankfully, very funny). They said they actually have some luck finding iPhones with the Find My iPhone app, and they took me out to their truck where they had a computer I could use to trace it. And that reminds me…

If you have an iPhone, enable the Find My iPhone app. Find My iPhone is a GPS-enabled device that can not only locate your phone on a map, it can lock the phone and wipe your data remotely. But did you know that the Find My iPhone app now comes standard with your MobileMe/iCloud/whatever-Apple-is-calling-it-today account? Okay, I did. But what I did not know is that you actually have to register your device, so my phone couldn’t be found this way. It only takes a few minutes, and it’s totally worth it. Do it. In fact, do it right now. I’ll wait.

I’m still pretty pissed off about the whole thing, but on the way home I realized if I could pass at least one piece of advice along to someone out there who rides transit, then at least I could look at this situation as a learning experience. And I’m very lucky: I didn’t get hurt, I was never in danger and I’m glad I had Molly for support (thank you, Molly!). Honestly, mostly I’m just mad that I can’t read my book tonight. (I’m telling you, IT’S A REALLY GOOD BOOK.)

But on the bright side: Siri, tell me who’s getting a new iPhone tomorrow?

Update: One more tip! I purchased a new iPhone from AT&T and they now have phone insurance. For just $9/month you’re protected against physical damage or loss. This is a new feature that I didn’t know about, so if you purchased your phone more than four months ago, call AT&T and see if you can add it. With the way my phones have behaved this year (dude, I went through FOUR PHONES!) it seems worth it to me!

Another update: I was on All Things Considered today talking about this incident in light of a new service that will register stolen phones so they can’t be used anymore. You can listen to the interview here. Thanks to Jeff Brady for having me!

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  • Max Erdenberger

    sorry. might be hard to get a new one during the holidays. -max e.

  • Makeswell

    Sorry Alissa. Glad you are safe! xo Megan

  • Jennyatyson

    Wow. Well said A Walker. Good advice and good attitude.

  • Michael_S.

    Classic Alissa to file a story within hours of this happening. Sorry this happened to you. 

    I was with Sarah Rich at a Cafe on Melrose a couple of years ago when a guy rushed past and lifted her iPhone and sprinted away down the street. She screamed “Hey you motherfucker!” A bunch of us ran after him. What ensued was quite dramatic but I won’t go on about it.
    Glad you are safe!

  • Clare

    I take the Blue Line roundtrip from downtown LBC to downtown LA twice a week – with my bike – and am always hunched over my iPad trying to get a jumpstart on emails.  Thanks for sharing these tips and reminding me to stay alert!  

  • lydiamann

    So sorry this happened to you, and thank you for the reminder to not make myself a target.

  • Sarah Jane

    That kind of happened to me while riding the up escalator leaving the Metro system. Though my natural response was to hold onto my iPhone for dear life instead of being surprised and letting it go. The guy wrestled with me for a bit and then ran off when the chick behind me started yelling at him. All because I wanted to check in on Foursquare. Now I’m much more cautious.

  • youradoptedson

    Thanks for sharing. Sucks that it happened, but maybe you’ll save someone else.

  • Rick Holter

    Sux that this happened to you. I’m wondering whether it’s better or worse to be reading on your iPad? But, I’ve gotta say, “The Marriage Plot” drove me crazy — those were exactly the kinda people I hated in college…

  • Paul

    Sorry this happened to you & thanks for some useful tips.

    But a little nudge from the English department- “Me and my friend Molly had spent…”- really?  Would you have written “Me had spent…”?

  • Alissa

    Thanks, fixed! My excuse: I was still in shock when I wrote this. Ha.

  • heather parlato

    i’m so sorry you had to experience even a relatively painless petty theft. at least these things are entirely replaceable. i will take the safety precautions in this post, but now i’m much more interesed in reading the marriage plot [thank you!].

  • Alissa

    Thanks Lydia!

  • Alissa

    Highly recommended! Although maybe in hardback form in public spaces.

  • Alissa

    I think an iPad is just as easy to snatch out of someone’s hands. And I think that’s the exact reason why I like The Marriage Plot!

  • Alissa

    Wow, you are so brave! Love that you stood your ground!

  • Alissa


  • Alissa

    I remember that story! I am also totally stupid about leaving my phone on bar and restaurant tables. I’m going to work on that as well.

  • Alissa

    As someone pointed out, the Blue Line is even more dangerous because the stations are above ground and people don’t have to go through turnstiles/escalators to get away. Be safe!

  • Alissa

    Thanks for your support!

  • Alissa

    Oh, thanks for bringing that up! Although not having a phone for a month wouldn’t really be the worst thing… I have Skype. I’d miss the mapping and transit apps, though.

  • Alissa

    Thanks Megan!

  • Josh R.

    The blue line is pretty notorious for that kind of thing. Unfortunately there isn’t much you can do. Yes having been able to use the find my iphone thing would have been awesome but otherwise I wouldn’t think it through too much as the likelihood that you actually could have stopped it from happening is a lot smaller than it may seem as you replay it in your head. You are safe and sound, everything else will work itself out.

  • Rachael

    I’m a lifer transit taker, too and I am always extra cautious on the Blue line. I try to avoid it whenever I can. Sorry about your iPhone =/

  • Anonymous

    I have a bulky Otterbox case on mine, so most people don’t recognize it as an iPhone. I also recommend wearing something else besides those conspicuous white Apple earbuds…

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  • Amy Minto

    Thanks for reminding me!

  • Pingback: Otro relato sobre un iPhone robado

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  • Anonymous

    Sucks that you had that happen to you.

    This post made me actually check that I had everything in order with Find My Phone, so thanks for that :) I’d activated it on my phone, but never actually checked if I’d done everything required to make it work, and I just activated it on my iPad and MacBook as well.

  • Outtacontext

    Sorry to hear about this. This has been happening on the DC Metro as well. I think you’re points are well made. I hold my phone from the top and the bottom with both hands when riding public transit to make ti a bit harder to yank. But I also try to be aware, especially when we make stops (as that is when the heists usually happen).

    I have a coworker who was using her phone when this happened. She held on the the perp let go. But as you’ve shown, it’s still a lucrative activity.

  • Anonymous

    Photographers deal with this threat all the time. So I Googled “wrist strap for iPhone” and there really is no security option out there! There are camera straps that have steel wire in them to prevent thieves from cutting off a camera.
    Nothing with steel wire is needed for the iPhone (except maybe at a cafe in some dangerous city) but, just a secure wrist strap to have around the wrist while reading would be good. It seems the only way to have a “secure” strap on an iPhone is to have a case that is also secured solid around the phone and the strap then could easily go off of that.The data plug on the bottom is not secure enough to reliably hold it.

  • Alissa

    I agree! I’ve been talking about this a lot with several different designers, actually. I’d love to see a strap that could not only prevent theft but could also help clumsy people like me not drop our phones (yes, I lost another one that way).

  • Alissa

    I’ve been holding mine this way as well since the incident. I think it does help!

  • Alissa

    Another interesting idea! Disguising cases!

  • Alissa

    Thanks so much.

  • Anonymous

    Another option to consider is:

    After I posted the wrist strap comment, I realized this was a no brainer option for iPhones. I suspect it has not been done because it would be too costly. If there was a loop or mechanism on the iPhone (like tripod mount on camera or neck strap hooks) it could be done. But the lack of that would mean making a case of some kind. Even a small case would add to the bulk. The case + the strap would price it around $20 if made overseas. But one that could hold up would be more like $30-40.Finally, this is something men (for the most part) would not want. Too girly. Although, I have one on my small G10 (didn’t like the neck strap) to keep me from dropping it. It is leather and I added the thicker nylon web strap. It is the best camera wrist strap imo.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s something interesting.
    Won’t stop a crook but…

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  • Anonymous
  • Neil

    Actually the yofo did help me with a Crook, the guy grabbed my  phone but was not able to get his hand around it and I was able to grab it back.  He was not expecting that the phone was essentially “attached” to my phone.  Here is an image from the web page of the product, which has tons of cool uses.   Check it out, interested to hear what you think.

  • John

    Alissa, you should truly try the YOFO.   I swear you’ll never drop your phone and this is such a great tool!

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  • Claire N

    Great article! Am about to get my first iPhone – in fact, my first ever not-just-a-brick-that-texts phone – and will definitely keep these tips in mind. I love this idea of a wrist strap – I swear by my camera strap, so why not one for iPhones?

    Also, your reaction to the theft made me laugh though, because I’ve done exactly the same thing when someone’s done me wrong in public. All articulacy goes out the window and one’s entire vocab is reduced to profanities! 

  • Dark Penguin

    When I’m out in public I usually wear my smartphone in a holder clipped to my left hip pocket. Using headphones is usually out of the question anyway because the ongoing mix of mechanical train noises and blaring station announcements makes it too difficult to enjoy music or other audio content.

    I have a couple of strategies for keeping my phone where it belongs on public transit. Since I wear it on the left I always try to find a window seat, always with the window on my left. Anybody trying to grab my Galaxy would have to reach all the way across me to do it. If the train’s crowded and I’m still seated, I have to have my backpack on my lap which presents another obstacle to anyone who’s thinking of taking my phone.

    If it’s so crowded I have to stand I just stow it in my backpack and hang on tight. I’ve never been unfortunate enough to be a victim of crime on the trains here, but that’s no reason not to be sensible.

  • Guest

    Who would ever ride the Blue Line at night ? Not a Long Beach native, that’s for sure…

  • Phantom Commuter

    ATC ? Nice self promotion. It’s the Hollywood way. Only a foolish transplant would be riding the Blue Line at night. Most Long Beach natives wouldn’t set foot on it.

  • Natalie-Sofia Long

    If you lost your iphone and you still have its IMEI then you can check it at iphonetrace.c o m