Cellphone theft scheme shows dangers of unsecured devices, finance apps

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A series of cell phone thefts in Minneapolis resulted in the loss of dozens of phones and tens of thousands of dollars in money stolen from victims’ digital wallets.

Prosecutors brought extortion charges this week against 12 people believed to be involved in the crime gang that targeted people leaving bars downtown. In all, the phones of more than 40 victims were stolen, either by force, intimidation or deception.

RELATED: 12 counts after investigation into mobile phone theft and fraud in Minneapolis

Court documents indicate that those involved in the theft ring approached strangers and asked to use their phones or add them on social media before escaping with the unlocked devices. The suspects then use apps such as Coinbase, Venmo, and Zelle to drain funds from the victim’s bank accounts.

These brazen crimes highlight the importance of keeping your personal electronic devices safe, says Shaun Lanterman, a cybersecurity expert at Minneapolis-based Computer Forensic Services.

As he says, once strangers have access to your phone, “those thieves are allowed to double the value of their theft.”

Lanterman says he sees a slight rise in crimes targeting victims’ digital wallets.

He recommends, “For any apps with sensitive data… just sign out of the app when you’re done using it.”

Lanterman says that some apps allow users to set up a secondary passcode that someone needs to enter to unlock the app.

But in case your phone is stolen, he recommends wiping it immediately remotely.

In all, victims of this scheme lost more than $85,000 in cryptocurrency and nearly $160,000 through payment apps.

There is hope for those who have been targeted. Lanterman told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that victims can get their money back thanks to fraud protection from banks associated with these apps, and in some cases, victims can recover the full amount stolen.

The leader of the phone theft scheme, Zhongshuang Su, appeared for the first time in court on Wednesday. The judge set bail at $250,000.

The other 11 accused in this case have not yet been arrested. If convicted, each faces up to 20 years in prison.

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