Cellphone Providers Take Steps to Deter Thefts

November 21, 2012

Major cellphone providers have agreed to prevent stolen devices from being reactivated in their networks, fueling hope among law enforcement officers that the move will slow the surge in thefts of wireless devices.

The anti-theft effort includes the introduction of databases meant to block stolen phones from being used on domestic networks, though some police chiefs believe the pace of any slowdown in the thefts may depend on how quickly would-be criminals learn about the initiative.

“There will be a lag time before people realize there is no resale value in phones,” St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom, a member of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story Monday.

Major U.S. cities have been reporting increases in thefts of expensive, do-it-all smartphones as criminals steal the devices to resell – sometimes overseas – as part of sophisticated black-market operations. Officials said earlier this year that cellphones now are taken in 38 percent of robberies in Washington and more than 40 percent of robberies in New York City involve phones. Many of the robberies are violent, resulting in either serious injury or sometimes death, police say.

This year through August in St. Louis, the Post-Dispatch reported, robberies in which a cellphone was the only thing taken were up 43 percent – even though reports of purse-snatchings and thefts of unattended belongings from cars or elsewhere were down about 42.5 percent from 2005.

The thefts have cost consumers millions of dollars and have sent law enforcement agencies and wireless carriers nationwide scrambling for solutions.

“This is your modern-day purse snatching,” longtime San Francisco Police Capt. Joe Garrity, who began noticing the trend in that city about two years ago, said recently. “A lot of younger folks seem to put their entire lives on these things that don’t come cheap.”

Under the new initiative targeting cellphone thefts, major cellphone carriers covering roughly 90 percent of U.S. subscribers are participating, said Chris Guttman-McCabe, of CTIA, an organization representing the wireless communications industry. Participating carriers include AT&T Inc., T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Nex-Tech.

As part of the database, carriers that field a report of a stolen device would be able to use the collected data to shut the device down before it can be reactivated by a thief or other user, rendering the device useless and ostensibly eliminating the incentive to carry out such thefts.

Cellphone service providers until recently could take stolen phones offline remotely, though that didn’t prevent them from being reactivated by someone using a different account.

Smartphone makers by Dec. 1 will begin including information inside the packaging about how to lock such devices, and next spring carriers will have to educate consumers about how to remotely lock or erase data from the phones.

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