Local, federal authorities bust Twin Cities smartphone theft ring

by Marion Renault

Local and national law enforcement have ended the eight-year reign of a Twin Cities-based crime ring that was trafficking stolen mobile phones and tablets across the country and abroad, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office's announcement Tuesday of the indictment of 20 of the Mustafa family ring's members.

The defendants, according to the press release, obtained the cell phones and other mobile devices using identity theft, fraud, burglary and “street-level violence,” then sold them for exorbitant profits.

According to a crime alert sent to the University of Minnesota community Wednesday, the University Police Department worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Secret Service, the FBI and other local law enforcement agencies to investigate the ring, described as “one of the largest criminal enterprises in the Twin Cities.”

UMPD’s involvement was partly led by the campus spike in robberies last fall, Vice President for University Services Pam Wheelock said in the alert, when officials noticed that thieves were targeting cellphones.

“Without addressing the underlying criminal enterprise creating a market for these phones, we were not doing everything possible to protect our students,” said University police Chief Greg Hestness in the attorney's office press release, adding that UMPD worked thousands of hours in robbery suppression during that time.

 “Mustafa Organization" — some of whose members owned 13 metro-area mobile device stores — made an estimated $4 million selling stolen phones and devices, according to the Star Tribune, since at least 2006.

The crime ring’s break-up comes months after Governor Mark Dayton signed the “kill switch” law into effect, which requires all new smartphones and cell-connect tablets sold in Minnesota after next July to be outfitted with a feature that allows users to remotely disable stolen devices if they are lost or stolen.