The burglar visited every room of Sara Scalenghe's Northwest Washington apartment, stealing an expensive digital camera and a gold necklace passed down from her grandmother. But Scalenghe did not begin seething until she confirmed her biggest fear: Her new iPod had been swiped, too.
The digital music player held 50 favorite songs, ranging from Mozart to Italian rap. The device also contained thoughts on a looming dissertation and recorded conversations with friends. For Scalenghe, her privacy, as well as her home, was invaded.
"I know it sounds silly, but it changed everything. I was really upset," said the 34-year-old graduate student. "I can't explain it. But it hurt."
Across the Washington area, thefts of digital music players are rising, police say, putting Scalenghe and others through the emotional trauma of losing something that has become an increasingly important and personal part of their lives. Victims said they felt the thieves got an illicit glimpse at their musical tastes and even their "souls."
Introduced just a few years ago, the portable music players have exploded in popularity and are changing the way people enjoy and purchase music. Roughly the size of a cell phone, iPods and other MP3 players allow users to create unique playlists of thousands of songs that can be taken anywhere. The devices typically sell for $100 and up; the songs are an additional expense.
Some thieves also have taken the home computers or laptops on which the music was stored. In some cases, massive music libraries -- built by painstakingly converting compact disc collections into digital format -- have vanished.
In the first three months of the year, D.C. and Fairfax County police each reported about 50 thefts of the portable music players in burglaries, thefts from cars and robberies -- an increase, both departments said. Other area communities have reported scattered thefts and robberies. The latest episode unfolded early yesterday, when a man was critically wounded when he was stabbed and robbed of his digital music player as he walked near the National Zoo.
Detective David Swinson of the D.C. police, who has investigated a half-dozen recent burglaries in which iPods were taken, said the thefts remind him of how criminals began targeting laptops several years ago. At first, thieves hesitated to steal the computers because they did not have a ready market on which to unload them. As they became commonplace, however, thieves could not resist, Swinson said.
"IPods and MP3 players are becoming a more desirable item, unfortunately," Swinson said. "Burglars are taking things they can carry with them, and iPods fall into that category. They are not going to take something they don't have a market for or they don't think they have a market for. They know they can sell iPods and MP3 players."
Swinson said informants have told him that "fences," who traffic in stolen property, are putting out the word that they are in the market for the players.
Swinson, a former punk rock promoter who owns an iPod, said he has come to empathize with the victims. Of his own device, he said, "I don't know how I survived without one. I would be destroyed if someone took it."
Swinson helped Scalenghe get back her player, which was stolen in mid-January from her Adams Morgan apartment. A few weeks later, he was reviewing receipts of items sold to a pawnshop when he came across it, court records show.
The detective, who declined to comment on the case, called Scalenghe and asked her to name the songs she had on her player, she said.
The songs and a serial number matched the device in the pawnshop. Within a few days, Scalenghe said, she got her $300 device back.