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Cell Carriers Agree to Disable Stolen Smartphones

By April 11, 2012Apple, ATT, Droid, iPhone, Verizon

I’ve personally witnessed a cell phone being ripped from someones ear in mid-conversation and the thieves running off before the victim can grasp what has just happened.   This is moving in the right direction but taking too long and with far too much resistance from the cell phone companies.

Yesterday, New York Senator Charles E. Schumer and New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly announced Tuesday that the major cell phone carriers in the United States and the Federal Communications Commission have agreed to their call to set up an integrated database of unique cell phone identifiers, known as International Mobile Equipment Identity numbers, to allow cell phone companies to permanently disable stolen cell phones.

According to a news release:

The announcement is part of an effort led by Schumer and the NYPD to crackdown on the growth of cell phone theft and its related crime by making stolen cell phones worthless on the black market. IMEI numbers are similar to Vehicle Identification Numbers that are unique to automobiles throughout the country and allow law enforcement to track stolen property. As part of his effort to crackdown on the illegal sale of stolen cell phones, Schumer is also introducing legislation making it a federal crime to alter or tamper with a phones IMEI number.

“Our goal is to make a stolen cell phone as worthless as an empty wallet,” said Schumer. “By permanently disabling stolen cell phones, we can take away the incentive to steal a cell phone in the first place and put a serious dent in the growing rates of iPhone and smart phone 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 cell phones so they cannot be reactivated once sold on the black market.”

“With the press of a button, carriers will be able to disable phones and turn highly prized stolen property into worthless chunks of plastic,” said New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. “Like draining the swamp to fight malaria, we’re trying to dry up the market to fight i-phone thefts.”

Currently, when cell phones are reported stolen, many American cell phone companies only deactivate the phone’s “SIM” card, which is the account data storage component of the device. While deactivation of a SIM card does not allow for the device to be used with existing data and account information, SIM cards are easily removed and replaced, allowing stolen phones to be easily resold on the black market. In August of last year, Schumer urged carriers to shut off phones based on IMEI number and called on the FCC to help the carriers facilitate the adoption of a database. In January, Schumer successfully urged AT&T to include the NYPD at the GSM Association’s North America Committee on Security and Fraud to discuss ways to combat cell phone theft.

Schumer and Kelly announced today that CTIA, the major wireless industry association, had committed to have its members work together with the FCC to establish a nationwide, interconnected database that will allow the carriers to share information on stolen cell phones across networks in order to track stolen phones and deter cell phone theft. As a result, cell carriers in the United States will no longer just deactivate SIM cards, which store a user’s account information, but instead, they will deactivate the actual handheld device, using the phone’s individual IMEI number. IMEI numbers are unique to the actual handheld device similar to a vehicle VIN number and can be found usually in battery compartments of phones.

As part of the overall effort to clamp down on cell phone theft, Schumer also announced he would be introducing legislation that would make it a federal crime to tamper or alter a cell phone IMEI numbers in order to activate a stolen phone. Schumer’s legislation will be modeled on similar federal statutes with respect to VIN numbers on automobiles. Anyone convicted of tampering with or altering the IMEI number on a cell phone could face a maximum of five years in prison.

According to the New York Police Department, 42% of all property crimes of individuals in New York City in 2011 involved a cell phone. Cell phone robberies in New York are being fueled in large part by the fact that stolen phones, like the iPhone and Android phones, are easily resold on the black market because they use SIM card technology. Cell phone theft and its resultant violence is a growing problem in the New York metropolitan area. Just a week ago, four separate teenagers had their cell phones stolen from them in a one hour period in Uniondale, Long Island, and in August of last year a 16-year-old boy was beaten up and robbed of his cell phone inside a train station in Brooklyn.