Metro anticipates cellphone theft risk with new payment system

WASHINGTON — Metro is thinking forward when it comes to payment options, but old problems still plague public transportation.

Metro is rolling out a pilot program in January that allows customers to pay for bus and rail transportation as well as parking with smartphones, smartwatches and other items such as debit and credit cards. But the convenient transit option could leave customers vulnerable to the threat of cellphone theft, says Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.

“We want riders to be smart whenever they are traveling on the system, whether it’s using a cellphone or taking out a wallet or something else,” Stessel says.

“There’s always the potential that someone could become the victim of crime as a result of that.”

After Metro saw a spike in cellphone thefts in 2013, Metro Transit Police cautioned riders about crooks looking to turn a profit on the gadgets. Police urged people to keeping phones out of sight while on trains or at least limit their use.

Also, police warned that as smartphone technology gets more advanced, the devices become more appealing targets.

Still, Stessel says he doesn’t expect more cellphones to be stolen when the new payment options are in place.

“We don’t expect for this to make much of a difference in terms of crime rates one way or the other,” says Stessel, who adds that paying with a phone is just one of the options.

Stessel says a majority of cellphone thefts happen when people aren’t paying attention — when they are “on the platform standing, or near train doors standing really engrossed on what’s happening on the screen.”

“That’s not the kind of moment where people are passing through the fare gates. When you’re passing through the fare gates, you’re in motion, you’ve got your wallet, your card or your phone grasped securely in your hand.”

Working in Metro’s favor is the recent decrease in cellphone thefts on the system.

Metro crime rates have dropped to a five-year low in the first six months of 2014 and snatch thefts of cellphones are down 49 percent compared to the same time period in 2013.

Also, Metro has seen a 35 percent decrease in bicycle thefts and a 43 percent decrease in robberies in the same time period.

The cellphone theft rates can be attributed to factors, such as increased awareness and improvements in cellphone technology, including fingerprint scans.

“With my iPhone5, it requires my fingerprint. If you don’t have my finger, you’re not getting into my phone,” Stessel says.

“As more and more cellphone manufacturers adopt anti-theft technology like that, the incidents of cellphone theft will become lower and lower and lower.”

The Metro Transit Police Department has tips to keep your mobile device secure:

  • Set up GPS tracking on your device.
  • Keep your device out of sight.
  • Use both hands when holding your phone.
  • Be aware of where you use your phone. Thefts are more common near doors or on escalators.
  • Consider changing your headphone color. Red and white headphone colors are often telltale signs that you have an expensive device.
  • If your device is stolen, never resist or chase a thief.

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