A Minnesota man authorities say is responsible for stealing hundreds of smartphones and tablets for an international electronics theft ring was caught after he purportedly left his own cellphone – with a photo of himself stored on it – behind at the crime scene.
The U.S Attorney's Office announced Tuesday Abbas Ateia Al Hussainawee, a 40-year-old from Minneapolis, is charged with conspiracy to engage in interstate transportation of stolen property.
The charges say he burglarized numerous electronics stores, taking thousands of dollars' worth of items which he would then sell to an infamous international crime ring, the Mustafa Organization.
How did he do it?
According to the charges, in lieu of breaking locked doors or smashing windows, Hussainawee would illegally enter a store by knocking a hole in the wall. He would specifically look for cellphone shops in strip malls, with an empty storefront next door, then break through to gain entry to the cellphone business.
The charges say he burglarized at least 22 different stores (across five states, including Minnesota), at times taking dozens of cellphones, iPads and tablet computers in a single swipe. Best Buy and Verizon stores were among the businesses hit. The Mustafa Organization then paid Hussainawee in cash for the items, the attorney's office says.
According to the Star Tribune, a special agent with the Secret Service testified Hussainawee was caught after he inadvertently dropped and left his personal cellphone at a Maplewood store, and investigators found a selfie on it.
The black market for stolen phones
There's a lot of money to be made in the (illegal) stolen cellphone business.
Wired magazine dove into that "secret world" this month, detailing one method that authorities say netted a California couple millions of dollars.
According to she story, the duo would pay homeless people $100 to go buy a cellphone, along with a plan – then hand the phone over to them and never pay a cent on the bill. Those phones would then be shipped to Asia and sold, often for close to $1,000. (Both are serving prison time now.)
The so-called Mustafa Organization was reportedly one of those rings.
According to charges filed in August, the family theft ring operated in eight states and was led by Jamal Talal Mustafa from Apple Valley.
They would hire runners (such as Hussainawee, authorities say) to use stolen identity information to sign up for a phone plan and get an expensive phone for cheap. The runners would then ship those phones to the Mustafas overseas, where they'd be sold for significantly more.
Twenty purported members of the Mustafa crime family were indicted earlier this year, in what was described as one of the largest criminal enterprise busts in Twin Cities history.
Last year, WNYC reported one estimate suggested 4,000 phones were stolen every single day in the U.S.