Feature Article

April 10, 2012

Wireless Carriers Work to Eliminate Cell Phone Theft

The federal government and the nation's four largest wireless carriers are finally uniting to fight smartphone theft – a crime that has reached near-epidemic levels with the cost of today's top handsets.

The plan – eerily reminiscent to the one proposed by TMC CEO Rich Tehrani more than two years ago – involves the creation of a central database that tracks phones reported lost or stolen. Once a handset is identified by the database, wireless carriers are obliged to disable the phone's voice and data service, making it nearly worthless on the secondary market. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to announce the details of the plan later on Tuesday.

Smartphone theft has become one of the more lucrative criminal enterprises over the last few years. The New York Times reports an astounding one in three robberies involves the theft of a cell phone. In urban areas like New York City and Washington D.C., rates are as high as 40 percent.

The goal of the pending database is to "make a stolen cell phone as worthless as an empty wallet," according to Senator Charles Schumer.

To do so, the FCC and the nation's top wireless companies need to overcome a major technological hurdle. Verizon and Sprint offer CDMA-based handsets that have unique serial numbers, making it rather easy to track stolen cell phones and disable them. AT&T and T-Mobile, on the other hand, operate a GSM network that relies on removable SIM cards, meaning thieves only need to switch out the data chip to make a clean getaway.

Officials with AT&T and T-Mobile told the Wall Street Journal they are working toward an "industry-wide solution" to amend this concern, but it is "not a simple problem to solve." An FCC official told the paper that the two carriers will most likely need to use an additional identifier that can't be removed as easy as a SIM card.

Schumer plans on assisting in this area by introducing legislation that criminalizes the removal or adjustment of a cell phone's unique ID – an action that is currently legal.  

In addition to the creation of the central database, wireless carriers have agreed to launch initiatives that will educate consumers on the importance of protecting smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices that hold personal information. The program will include guides and messages that show users how to remotely lock a device, wipe it and track its location.

Each of the four top carriers will roll out their own individual database in the next six months, according to the Journal. The centralized, integrated database is expected to launch within the next 18 months.

Edited by Braden Becker

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