April 11, 2012

Wireless providers to disable stolen phones

Smartphone and cellphone thefts made up 30% to 40% of all robberies in 2011 in major U.S. cities.
By Mario Tama, Getty Images Smartphone and cellphone thefts made up 30% to 40% of all robberies in 2011 in major U.S. cities.

Cellphone providers, police, regulators and legislators are teaming up to thwart a rise in smartphone thefts.

A new nationwide database aimed at preventing the use of stolen smartphones will be announced Tuesday by the cellular industry. That will be strengthened by a bill proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., making it illegal to circumvent the database.

Smartphone and cellphone thefts made up 30% to 40% of all robberies in 2011 in major U.S. cities, accounting for as many as 27,000 thefts, police say. More than 40% of all robberies in New York City involve pricey phones. And thefts are on the rise in Washington, D.C., too, where 1,611 of last year's 4,208 robberies (38%) involved them.

"It is a big crime trend, and that is what the police chiefs brought to our attention," says Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski, who will be joined by police chiefs from New York, Philadelphia and Washington at the official announcement.

Cellphone service providers pledge to cooperate on a database, fully operational within 18 months, that will prevent stolen smartphones from being used on other networks in the U.S. or globally. Today, not all carriers can prevent stolen phones from being reactivated. "The police chiefs are convinced that that will significantly reduce the value of the phone and reduce the black market economics to steal a phone," Genachowski says.

Companies also plan to encourage customers to use passwords that lock their phones and to find and use applications that allow them to remotely lock or wipe data off their phones if they are stolen. And a public education campaign will alert people about smartphone safety.

Victims of smartphone theft cannot only lose their device and personal data but get hurt in the process. In New York, robbers have pushed victims in front of subway trains and cars before snatching their smartphones, says Phil Pulaski, chief of detectives at the NYPD, which has been working with carriers since 2009 on the project. "It's nasty business," he says.

"Our goal is to make a stolen cellphone as worthless as an empty wallet," said Schumer in a statement. "By permanently disabling stolen cellphones, we can take away the incentive to steal a cellphone in the first place and put a serious dent in the growing rates of iPhone and smartphone theft.

"I want to commend FCC Chairman Genachowski and the cell carriers for working with us to help crack down on this growing crime trend and putting in place a comprehensive database that will allow carriers to identify stolen cellphones so they cannot be reactivated once sold on the black market."

by Mike Snider - Apr. 10, 2012 09:18 AM USA Today

Wireless providers to disable stolen phones

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