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The iPod: Lightning Rod for Criminals?

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Document date: September 27, 2007
Released online: September 27, 2007

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Contact: Elizabeth Cronen, (202) 261-5723, ecronen@ui.urban.org


WASHINGTON, D.C. September 27, 2007—Crime statistics released Monday by the FBI showed violent crime increased in 2005 and 2006, and a new Urban Institute analysis offers evidence that the concurrent explosion in iPod use may have triggered the spike.

The gadgets are not just entertaining and convenient; their high value, visibility, and versatility make them "criminogenic"—or "crime-creating," in the vocabulary of criminologists. And their power to distract users can give thieves an advantage. Researchers John Roman and Aaron Chalfin suggest in the report "Is There an iCrime Wave?" that iPods' popularity with consumers and appeal to criminals may have translated into rising violent crime rates.

Roman and Chalfin note that robberies—thefts that use or threaten violence—were up 3.9 percent in 2005 and 6.8 percent in 2006, while theft overall declined by 6 percent and auto theft fell 5 percent over the two-year span. The iPod's popularity among young people may make it a special target for juvenile offenders, and indeed youth robbery arrests jumped 11 percent in 2005 and 21 percent in 2006. Adult robbery arrests rose only 1 percent in 2005 and 5 percent the following year.

An outbreak of iPod-targeted muggings would be consistent with these numbers, but what share of the increase in robberies is due to these "must have" personal media devices? Empirical data are limited, but anecdotal evidence is mounting.

In the first three months of 2005, major felonies rose 18 percent on New York City's subways; but if iPod and cell phone thefts are excluded, felonies actually declined by 3 percent. Thus, the Metropolitan Transit Authority now warns riders that "Earphones are a giveaway. Protect your device." Similar signs appear on BART trains in San Francisco. In Washington, DC, in the first four months of 2007, robberies of iPods on the subway alone accounted for 4 percent of all robberies citywide, compared with well under 1 percent in 2005.

Roman and Chalfin raise intriguing questions about iPods and crime prevention. While complex social dynamics often are cited as root causes of crime, the researchers offer the possibility that increases in both the supply of potential victims and opportunities for would-be offenders are behind the recent crime numbers. The full report is available at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=411552.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.



Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice | Economy/Taxes


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