Cell phone, laptop, tablet theft could be felony offenses

Many Ohioans carry laptops, tablets or smart phones that contain banking information, health data, extensive contact lists and other sensitive data that if stolen could wreak havoc in short order.

This legislation comes on the heels of a law change in 2011 that changed the threshold for felony theft from $500 to $1,000 so stealing this sort of hardware is now generally a misdemeanor.

Advocates for the bill say making it a felony would heighten police attention to the crimes and impose stiffer penalties.

“According to law enforcement, it is increasing — I wouldn’t say exponentially but it’s definitely a bad trend because these are all over the place. They are selling these, shipping them off to other countries for salvage values of $100, $150,” said state Sen. Jim Hughes, R-Columbus, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 63. “It’s just one of the new crimes that is overtaking everything.”

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, speaks from experience. Her iPad and personal computer were stolen from her home on Feb. 25 during a burglary. She said her son had installed applications to allow him to work remotely on the devices. He was able to trace the location of the computer to an apartment in Cincinnati and send a message to the iPad announcing it had been stolen, she said.

Police recovered the computer but the iPad is still missing, she said.

“No arrests have been made and I suspect it might be because this is considered just a misdemeanor as far as they’re concerned,” Lehner said.

Computers and tablets often contain business-related data that is far more valuable than the hardware, she said.

Hughes said four-digit passwords don’t always protect sensitive data since widely available computer applications can crack those codes in 90 seconds and tracking applications only work when the devices are on. Some of the trackers don’t give precise locations — just a building or area.

Lehner said she isn’t sure that stealing a cell phone should be a felony offense. “It’s so easy to see a cell phone on the seat of a bus and picking it up and taking it that I’m not sure that person should be charged with a felony that could send them away to prison for several years,” she said. “But a computer or an iPad, one has to give a little bit of thought to stealing something like that.”

Hughes hopes the bill is approved by the General Assembly this fall.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that while he hasn’t looked at the bill, he supports it in concept. Historically, Ohio law considers the dollar value of the item stolen, he said.

“To think that all you’re stealing is a $10 phone is simply wrong. You’re stealing stuff that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars either to the crook or to the person who lost it,” DeWine said.

Louie Toms, of Springfield, who had his laptop stolen from his car, agreed and said he supports the bill.

“I had all kinds of personal information stored on there, family pictures, school information and other documents,” he said. “I think (the bill) is a great idea, no matter what the value, if you can store valuable information and it’s stolen, put people in prison.”

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