Crime, Law and Justice

Charges: Group ran coordinated phone theft ring in Minneapolis

A customer inspects an Apple iPhone
A customer inspects a new Apple iPhone in 2017. Hennepin County prosecutors have charged 12 people with running a cell phone theft ring in Minneapolis.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images file

Twelve people have been charged with running a cell phone theft ring in Minneapolis, in what prosecutors say was a coordinated scheme that extended overseas and resulted in losses exceeding $300,000.

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office on Tuesday announced the charges in connection with what officials called a "highly organized criminal enterprise" that victimized more than 40 people.

The 12 people charged with racketeering crimes range in age from 19 to 41. Eight are from St. Paul, three from Minneapolis and one from Bloomington.

“According to the complaint, from June 2021 through May 2022, these twelve individuals operated as an enterprise to systematically steal cell phones, fraudulently transfer funds from the victims' phones to individuals associated with the theft ring, and then sell the stolen cell phones locally and internationally,” the county attorney's office reported in a news release.

One of the defendants, reportedly nicknamed “the iPhone man,” allegedly sent at least 30 shipments of phones to an address in Minneapolis, and nearly 50 shipments to Hong Kong, prosecutors said.

A criminal complaint accuses people involved in the alleged scheme of often targeting intoxicated people in downtown Minneapolis at bar close, sometimes taking phones by force or intimidation.

“At other times, the defendants would approach victims in a friendly manner and ask the them for their phone so that the defendant could add themselves to a social media platform. The defendant would make sure the victim unlocked their phone before handing the phone to another defendant in the illegal operation who would transfer money from the victim's accounts to the defendant's accounts using mobile payment services,” the county attorney's news release states.

In some cases, the criminal complaint alleges, suspects who obtained an unlocked phone would quickly change passwords and disable phone-locating programs before withdrawing money.

In one case, one of the defendants reportedly told police that he was part of a group that regularly traveled from St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis and Dinkytown to steal phones from “easy victims.” He said he served as a “distractor” while other defendants took the phones.

“The group usually steals iPhones because they are worth more than other phones and while the group prefers to trick the victims out of their phones, they are not afraid to use force when necessary,” the defendant told police, according to the complaint.

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