9 Investigates: Why local cellphone stores are recent targets of robberies

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Several suspects in violent robberies at cellphone shops all over the Charlotte area still haven't been caught. After nearly a dozen robberies occurred at cellphone stores in the past few months, Channel 9 is digging into why the stores are being targeted.

You may remember terrifying surveillance video from a Pineville Sprint store last summer, when police said armed robbers rushed in and yelled at customers and employees to lie down. Within minutes, they crammed 29 cellphones, worth $22,000, into bags and took off. The four suspects still haven't been caught.

That was one of nearly a dozen cellphone shop robberies Channel 9 has covered in recent months across the Charlotte area.

Past coverage of cellphone shop robberies: 

"It’s really scary, actually, just because you don’t know if they have a gun or they could have a gun,” said Lucy Hidrogo.

Hidrogo is a manager at a Monroe Metro PCS store, which robbers have targeted twice. She told Eyewitness News anchor Liz Foster that, thankfully, she wasn't working either time.

"I feel like it’d be very scary,” she said.

The robberies aren't just scary; one was deadly. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said a man shot and killed the owner of a cellphone repair shop in East Charlotte in January.

In Lincolnton, police are still looking for two of the three suspects in the brutal beating of a clerk last summer at Sea Wireless.

Most cases are like the robbery last October at the Verizon Wireless store in Indian Trail. In that case, the suspects threatened employees with guns and were gone within minutes.

"It concerns us," said Tyler Kell, a detective with the Union County Sheriff's Office. Kell said he has investigated multiple cellphone store robberies. He says suspects often plan to sell stolen smartphones for close to their $1,000 value, either at Eco ATM kiosks, on social media marketplaces or in pawn shops.

“The increased value of your everyday cellphone over the last several years has played a part in that increase in cellphone thefts,” Kell said.

But sources have told Channel 9 that, in some cases, robbers are able to use stolen smartphones for much bigger crimes, such as drug trafficking. Criminals can use stolen smartphones at public places with free Wi-Fi, without even having the phone activated to a cellphone provider. They can easily download free messaging apps to coordinate drug deals and other crimes that investigators admit they wouldn't know about because there's no traceable cell service.

“Obviously, using Wi-Fi makes it more difficult for us," Kell said.

Foster asked, "So there’s a possibility there are more crimes being committed with these stolen phones that you guys aren’t even able to track?" Kell replied, "There could be. Yes ma’am.”

Detectives said cellphone stores need stronger security measures, more cameras and more employees and they need to secure their merchandise.

Those are all measures Lucy Hidrogo now takes more seriously than ever every time someone walks in the door. "You never know who you’re dealing with,” she said.