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Stolen-cellphone database: Making phones useless to criminals

TheftComputer HardwareMedia IndustryRaymond W. KellySprint CorporationChuck Schumer

The largest wireless carriers are banding together with regulators and law enforcment officials to launch an effort to make stolen cellphones and other mobile devices as useless as an empty wallet.

The goal is to cut down on increasing thefts of smartphones by making them less appealing to criminals.

AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA and Sprint Nextel Corp. said Tuesday they will create a central database to track stolen devices and prevent them from being reactivated.

The move is part of a broader effort to educate consumers about how to secure their devices through passwords and apps that can allow them to remotely delete the data in the case of a theft.

"Now carriers with the push of a button will be able to take highly prized stolen instruments and turn them into worthless pieces of plastic," said New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. "It’s like draining the swamp to fight malaria….We think this is going to have a significant impact."

Kelly joined other big-city police chiefs at news conference in Washington announcing the new effort, which was organized by the Federal Communications Commission and CTIA-The Wireless Assn., the top industry trade group.

Law enforcement officials such as Kelly and Cathy Lanier, chief of Washington's Metropolitan Police Department, have pushed the industry and regulators to help combat the dramatic growth in thefts of iPhones and other mobile devices. Over the last decade, such thefts have jumped from 8% of all thefts and grand larcenies in New York City to more than 40%.

"In most instances...these devices are being taken at point of gun," said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, head of the Major Cities Chiefs Assn. "They’re being taken after serious assaults, so this is no small crime."

To combat the thefts, the top companies will start with their own databases that will track mobile devices reported to them as stolen by their owners, with the goal of creating a single central database for the country and ultimately the world.

Carriers will check the database when anyone attempts to activate wireless service for a device, denying it to any that have been reported stolen.

The effort will begin with the four top carriers, which provide service to more than 90% of all U.S. wireless customers, with smaller carriers eventually coming on board.

The first database will be set up by Oct. 31 for phones using the GSM technology, CTIA said. A database covering fourth-generation LTE technology will be in place by Nov. 30, 2013.

Each device has a unique identifier number, similar to the vehicle identification number on automobiles. As part of the effort announced Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would introduce legislation making it a federal crime to tamper with the identifying number on a mobile device, as it is with auto VINs.

"Today iPhones and smartphones are catnip for criminals. They’re valuable, they’re exposed, they’re easy to steal. They are ripe for the picking," Schumer said, noting that a $600 smartphone costs as much as some flat-screen televisions, but is much easier to steal.

"Criminals are smart. Once they know that the phone is worthless they’re not going to steal it," he said. "So by deactivating a cellphone … we can put a really serious dent in this growing crime trend."

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the wireless carriers have agreed to file quarterly reports on their progress, and the commission will take action if deadlines aren't met.

"We’re sending a message to consumers -- we've got your back," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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