The Impact of Cell Phones on Crime

By John Machay

The widespread use of cell phones has increased the number of reported crimes.
i Siri Stafford/Digital Vision/Getty Images

More than 85 percent of U.S. adults own a cell phone, 75 percent of whom admit to never spending a waking hour without it. Considering people use these handy mobile devices for a whole lot more than just talking to others – like taking pictures, sending and receiving text messages, getting driving directions, accessing the Internet, playing games, watching videos and listening to music –saying cell phones have had an impact on people’s lives is no major revelation. What might not be as obvious, however, is the impact cell phones have had on people’s quality of life by reducing crime rates.

Local Drops in Crime

Because it would be difficult to substantiate a direct correlation between the use of cell phones and rises or drops in criminal activity, national statistics on whether mobile devices have affected crime aren’t easy to come by. However, several law enforcement agencies on local levels agree that cell phones have been instrumental in taking an unprecedented bite out of crime. Among these agencies is the San Diego Police Department, which gives full credit to cell phone usage for a 4.7 percent drop in major crimes. In Oregon, the number of arrests in hit-and-run accidents has increased substantially, thanks to motorists who take pictures of the offenders’ license plates or read them off to 911 dispatchers.

The Deterrent Factor

Police attribute the drops in crime rates to people’s willingness to contact authorities using their cell phones, which has improved the response times of police departments. This dynamic has acted as a deterrent to would-be criminals, who now think twice before committing crimes in an area where they might be seen. Supporting this theory are countless intended child abductions thwarted by someone with a cell phone. In two separate incidents in Avondale, Ariz., an 11-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl were approached by a suspected sexual predator, who fled when the children produced cell phones to call for help.

Organized Efforts

In spite of cell phones’ inherent effect on reducing criminal activity, several crime watch groups across the U.S. have taken the idea to a higher, more organized level – with encouraging results. The Dade County Neighborhood Cellular Watch Project, which pioneered the nationwide effort with a 12-month experiment in 1995, actively encourages citizens in 11 Florida neighborhoods to use their cell phones as crime fighting tools and report any potential criminal activity they observe. Since the program began, the number of burglaries in the area has dropped 33 percent, robberies are down 24 percent and thefts have fallen 9 percent. Moreover, a study conducted by Florida International University concluded the use of cell phones has resulted in residents feeling safer and boosting their morale by making them feel they have a hand in protecting their neighborhoods.

The Downside

Although cell phones have proven to be instrumental in reducing crime, they’ve also played a part in creating it. High-priced smartphones have become a hot commodity on the international black market, resulting in a growing number of thefts every year. In Australia, more than 40,000 cell phones are reported stolen every year, while in the U.K., 228 cell phones are snatched every hour. In the U.S., one in three people have lost cell phones to thieves; the problem is particularly severe in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, where half of the residents been victimized at some point. But cell phones aren’t being stolen for just their monetary value. The information they hold make them useful tools in identity theft crimes, which affect an estimated 10 million U.S. residents every year. Additionally, in recent years, cell phones have played roles in road rage incidents, stalking cases and harassment crimes.