OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – Starting March 22, as many as 40,000 people are expected to flood Osceola Heritage Park for Country Thunder 2019, one of the biggest country music festivals in the U.S.
Among those 40,000 people, roving cellphone pickpocket gangs, according to Osceola County Deputy James Froelich.
The gangs travel around the country to events such as concerts, shows, festivals and games that draw large crowds. They work in groups, targeting unsuspecting people attending the events, Froelich said.
"These criminals, these roving bands of pick-pocketers, will try and come into these festivals to take things that aren't theirs," Froelich said. "These roving gangs of pickpockets will look for any type of opportunity to commit these crimes."
Froelich said the pickpockets look for cellphones that area easily accessible, such as the ones sticking out of a back pocket.
Froelich said most victims don't even know their phones are missing until long after the thief has disappeared into the crowd.
Pickpockets will also sneakily unzip a hanging purse or grab a phone from a jacket pocket.
Festivals are the ideal hunting ground for pickpockets because there are plenty of distractions - alcohol, music and other people.
Some concerts bring people together so close, often shoulder to shoulder, that if they are bumped they don't even realize it.
Froelich said as many as 40 uniformed deputies will be walking among the crowd to watch for pickpockets.
"They do it all the time and a lot of times they fall into a pattern because they're getting used to what they're doing," Froelich said. "The thing is, the detectives also know what their patterns are and are teaching it to these deputies going to be on these (music festival) details so they can look for it."
Osceola County sheriff's detectives recently arrested three men accused of trying to ship almost 100 cellphones out of the U.S.
Detective Grattan Heyward said the men were caught when they tried to pick up a box full of stolen cellphones from a Kissimmee UPS store.
An employee noticed the buzzing, ringing box and called deputies.
Heyward said they arrested Wilmer Arias-Arias, Edward Garcia-Castano and Estivenson Blanco Rubiano, all Colombians living in the U.S. without proper documentation.
Heyward said the men admitted to traveling the country for the past 12 months and targeting people in large crowds at music festivals, sporting events, shows and concerts for their smartphones.
"What they do is interact in the crowd where everyone is very close and they steal phones out of pockets and purses," Heyward said. "This individual (Blanco-Rubiano) we arrested was just arrested in Okeechobee for doing the same thing."
Deputies said concertgoers must make it harder for thieves to snatch phones.
Move your phone from your back pocket to your front pocket, especially if it sticks out.
Use a safety pin to lock a zipper on a purse and prevent it from being unzipped by sneaking fingers.
Even strap rubber bands on the slick surface of your phone so it becomes much more difficult to easily slide it out of your pocket.
Froelich said make sure to turn on your GPS antenna on your phone before you enter the festival.
"When you're pulling up in your car, as you're pulling up, take a moment and turn on your location services, and make sure you have the find my phone feature turned on," Froelich said. "Because once you do that, you can get your friend's phone, log in, lock the phone, so no one can get in."
Often thieves will immediately power off a phone to prevent it from being found but Froelich said as soon it's powered up again it will lock as long as it's been remotely disabled.
The phone-finding feature or app also allows you to get your MEID number, which is the phone's digital fingerprint, according to Froelich. Getting this number to detectives will help them track your phone.
Anytime a phone is wiped and reactivated by any carrier, the MEID must be entered in carrier's system, Froelich said.