Nightly Break-ins Are the Norm for Israel's Smartphone Retailers and Repair Shops

Police offer little recourse in what one victim — who was robbed 37 times — calls 'economic terrorism'

Watchdog groups that keep tabs on digital privacy rights are concerned that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents are searching phones, such as this iPhone pictured in February 2016, and other digital devices of international travelers at border checkpoints.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

It was like a scene out of a Hollywood heist film. The thieves staged their crime in one of the most secure places in Tel Aviv, right across from army headquarters in Tel Aviv’s Kirya. They broke open the safe containing the most valuable items and even timed their heist to make sure the most valuable stuff was there for the taking. With the police in hot pursuit, the gang made off with 500,000 shekels ($142,000) of loot.

But the theft last January wasn’t about rare jewels or art. The thieves were after smartphones, in particular the iPhone7, which the gang apparently knew had just arrived at the iDigital store they robbed.

That heist is just one instance in a wave of smartphone store thefts over the last few months. In fact, the iDigital store, which belongs to the authorized Israeli Apple products dealer, was hit again by thieves a month and a half later. The iDigital in the Negev mall in Be’er Sheva was robbed last October by thieves who bored a hole through a wall from a store adjacent to the mall.

Break-ins at smartphone stores or repair centers are a nightly occurrence around Israel; on many nights there are multiple break-ins. Smartphones are small and expensive, making them easy to steal and lucrative to sell anonymously. The average take is 200,000 shekels, and the police say they have no solution to the problem.

Shai Amar, co-CEO of iLab, which operates two cellphone repair centers, says he suffered three break-ins in the last year alone. When he reports this to the police, he often finds out that other smartphone stores in the immediate area were robbed at the same time.

“It’s always three or four people, with sock caps, head-mounted flashlights, gloves and heavy equipment. From our security cameras we know they were Arabic speakers. They carried the big bags building contractors use and they filled them up with phones. The whole thing is over in a few minutes,” he said.

Amar said he got the impression that the police don’t address the crimes seriously. Two of the investigations about the break-ins at his Tel Aviv lab were closed within a few months without any results and he doubts the police even troubled to identify any suspects.

“A theft like that interests them like a leaf falling from a tree,” he said. “They treated it like a joke. Someone came from criminal identification, looked at the security camera video and said, ‘Ah, they’re wearing gloves – there’s nothing I can do’ and left.”

In Ramat Gan, where the third break-in occurred, the police did a better job and even found one of the stolen phones in the West Bank town of Tulkarm. But the person who had the phone said he had bought it in an open market, so the police couldn’t act.

Amar has insurance but it doesn’t provide full coverage for his losses and the compensation takes four months to arrive, which means he can’t restock his lost inventory immediately. And since he operates repair centers, many of the stolen goods belonged to customers. The thieves did considerable damage, using hammers and other heavy equipment to break into the lab.

The owner of a medium-sized chain of cellphone store with about 10 outlets said he had been robbed 37 times.

“It’s a kind of economic terrorism in Israel that people refuse to call by its name,” said the owner, who asked not to be identified. “The police can’t do a lot. They’re helpless because it isn’t a local police problem, it’s a national problem. The police say ‘it’s a gang from the West Bank’ or ‘Bedouins from somewhere’ and close the file. After the last break-in a month ago, I didn’t even both to file a report with the police.”

A spokesman for the Israel Police insists that the number of break-ins of business establishments has actually gone down and that is committed to investigating each case reported. At the start of the year, the police launched a joint undertaking with the Communications Ministry to prevent stolen phones from being used.

“Moreover, in recent years the Israel Police has focused on intelligence and operational enforcement in mobile phone thefts and has invested considerable effort in finding offenders and locating the stolen phone. As evidence, in 2016 more than 2,000 stolen cellphones and laptops were returned to their owners, “ the spokesman said.

During the January theft the police arrived in time to pursue the thieves in their getaway car but eventually lost them, noted Ayalet Tzarfati Rosen, iDigital’s CEO. She doesn’t have much confidence in the police and said she had no choice but to upgrade security at her stores. “By the way the thieves act they don’t think the other side [the police] are making much of an effort to hunt them down.”