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Cellphone store robberies in Houston up 500% since last year, officials say

HOUSTON – Trafficking in stolen cellphones has become big money.

Cellphone store robberies in Houston are up 500% in just the first three weeks of 2020, according to records from the Houston Police Department. There have been 30 cellphone store robberies so far. In the same time period last year, there were only five robberies.

At the Metro PCS store in the 16200 block of Imperial Valley, two gunmen robbed the store Jan. 8 by pinning an employee to the wall and ordering another to empty the cash drawers.

The store managers said in a subsequent robbery, a clerk was pistol-whipped so badly he had to be hospitalized.

“I know this job isn’t supposed to be like that,” said store manager, Ozzie Martinez. “It’s supposed to be more of, we don’t have to worry about things like that, but we do now.”

The robbers are usually after easy money from the cash drawers, but also high-end cellphones that can be sold for thousands of dollars offshore.

The current favorite; the new Apple iPhone 11 that normally sells for about $1,100, but brings much more on the street.

“Part of the problem as to why we’ve had the increase is because of that particular phone,” said Det. Jeff Brieden of the HPD Robbery Division. “It’s a problem we have here locally but its also a national problem.”

Time frameCCell phone store robberies in Houston
Jan 1 to 25, 20195 robberies
Jan 1 to 25, 202030 robberies

Last fall, police in the San Diego area broke up a robbery ring that stole crates of new phones from delivery truck drivers and sold them to wealthy buyers in Dubai, Mexico, Iran and Russia.

Stolen phones can’t be reactivated in the U.S., but they can be in foreign countries. And the profits can be thousands of dollars per phone.

Last week in Houston, investigators arrested suspects connected to three different cellphone robbery rings. But police said there are plenty of others ready to take their place.

“As much as I wish it put a dent in the problem, it really doesn’t because you just have this revolving door,” Brieden said.

For store employees, it adds an element of danger to what should be a low-risk sales job.

“I worry every day. Of course my other worries every day,” Martinez said.

Police are attacking the problem with increased vigilance, while stores like the one where Ozzie Martinez workers are beefing up security.