Thefts of smartphones and other electronic devices in the Metro system spiked in late July and early August, prompting officials to urge riders to pay attention to their surroundings.

“Get your head out of your iPhone,” Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik said Thursday during a news conference to talk about the increase in grab-and-run crime.

During the two-week period that ended Aug. 7, he said 40 devices — iPhones, iPads, Kindles and Android phones were stolen — a 48 percent increase over the previous two-week span. And in a new twist: thieves are targeting passengers riding escalators.

“You wouldn’t go around flaunting $400 in cash in your hand, and that’s what you’re doing with your phone,” the chief said.

Grab-and-run thefts have been a recurring problem for Metro for several years. In 2011, there were 438 such thefts; in 2012 that number increased to 491.

To emphasize his point and show how quickly such thefts take place, Pavlik released two videos. In one a man snatches a device from another rider just before the doors shut on a train stopped at the Capitol Heights station. In another, a man dashes from the back of a Metrobus, snatches a woman’s phone and exits the bus as the doors close.
Pavlik acknowledged that the thefts are a stubborn problem even as the transit agency has stepped up patrols and deployed decoy officers holding mobile devices in an effort to catch the culprits. He said that over the past few months, the transit agency has installed high-definition cameras to try to identify thieves.

“Criminals should know that if you’re on Metro, chances are we’ve got you on camera,” he said.

Pavlik said it’s not clear what’s behind the most recent spike. But he said in this latest wave, about 85 percent of the victims were women. And while the thefts occur systemwide, about 87 percent of them take place within the Metrorail system.

He said riders can help by being aware of their surroundings and keeping their gadgets out of sight. If they must use a device, they should not sit near the doors and they should maintain a firm grip, he said.

Pavlik could not say how often his officers have been able to catch thieves, but noted that authorities are having some success, particularly when a device’s tracking software is enabled.

In one case in February, a Green Line rider’s iPhone was stolen as the train approached the Naylor Road station. The iPhone was tracked to Good Hope Avenue near the rail station. A transit officer spotted a person who matched the description of the suspect just as an alarm the victim had set on the iPhone began to go off. The transit officer found the iPhone in the thief’s pocket and made an arrest.

Although authorities — including D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier — have been promoting a process known as “bricking,” in which a service provider can disable a phone from future use, Pavlik said the process can be a double-edged sword. Authorities need the device to work so they can track it, but they also want thieves to be blocked.