Cellphone theft scheme shows dangers of unsecured devices, finance apps

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A string of cellphone thefts in Minneapolis resulted in the loss of dozens of phones and tens of thousands of dollars in siphoned funds from the victims’ digital wallets.

Prosecutors filed racketeering charges this week against 12 people believed to be involved in the crime ring targeting people leaving bars downtown. In all, more than 40 victims had their phones stolen, either by force, intimidation or trickery.

RELATED: 12 charged following investigation into cellphone theft, fraud operation in Minneapolis

Court documents state those involved in the theft ring approached strangers and asked to use their phone or be added on social media before running off with the unlocked devices. The suspects would then use apps like Coinbase, Venmo and Zelle to drain money from the victim’s bank accounts.

Sean Lanterman, a cybersecurity expert with Minneapolis-based Computer Forensic Services, says these brazen crimes highlight the importance of keeping your personal electronic devices secure.

As he says, once strangers have access to your phone, “it allows these thieves to double the value of their theft.”

Lanterman says he’s seeing an uptick in crimes that target victims’ digital wallets.

“For any apps that have sensitive data … simply log out of the app when you are done using it,” he recommends.

Lanterman says some apps let users set up a secondary passcode that someone would need to enter to open the app.

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

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

There is hope for those who were targeted. Lanterman told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS victims could get their money back thanks to fraud protection from banks connected to these apps, and in some cases, victims can recover the entire amount that was stolen.

The ringleader in the phone theft scheme, Zhongshuang Su, had his first court appearance on Wednesday. A judge set his bail at $250,000.

The 11 other suspects charged in this case have yet to be arrested. If convicted, they each face up to 20 years in prison.