Cell carriers launch anti-theft effort they could have started in 1996

Even after agreeing, carriers delay start for six months, sell more replacement phones in meantime

After years of seeing cell phones stolen, re-configured and resold as used or refurbished, cell-phone carriers have finally agreed to do something to make mobiles harder to steal.

Every year in the United States, about 70 million cell phones and smart phones are lost or stolen. Only about seven percent are ever recovered.

Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile stood up at a press conference in Washington this morning to announce a program to stop all the theft – though the first steps won't happen for six months, the second big step will take 18 months and the means for carriers to accomplish both have been available since 1996.

In the first phase – the deadline for which is six months from now – carriers romise to remotely deactivate stolen cell phones as soon as a customer reports it stolen. Each carrier will build an anti-theft database of unique MEID identifying numbers for the stolen cell phones they've bricked so the stolen phones can't be resold and reused on the original carrier's network.

In the second phase – which isn't due to go into effect for 18 months – carriers will share the MEIDs of all those stolen cell phones by including them in a centralized database to make sure stolen phones aren't re-used on some other carrier's network either.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the chiefs of police sound proud of the program. They certainly have enough motivation.

Cell phones, tablet computers and other handheld electronics are the most-common target of thieves in New York – more popular even than cash according to an NYPD crime-report analysis published in December.

Half the 16,000 robberies in New York during the first 10 months of 2011 involved cell phones or other gadgets. In most cities that number is between 30 percent and 40 percent, representing 54 percent more cell-phone thefts now than in 2007, according to Genachowski.

Smart phones – iPhones particularly – contribute to street crime because they're expensive, attractive, easy to resell and people using them are distracted by calls or apps, making it far easier for thieves on the street or in the subways to grab the gadgets and run, according to police reports in Chicago and New York.

The NYPD decided to keep a database of stolen devices and their serial numbers – however big a stretch it is to assume the best organization to keep track of cell phones is a municipal police department rather than cell-phone carriers that can track the location of every phone every second it's active anywhere on their network.

"It’s just too easy for a thief to steal a phone and sell it on the black market," Genachowski told the New York Times. "This program will make it a lot harder to do that. And the police departments we are working with tell us that it will significantly deter this kind of theft."

Why would cell phone companies lag on anti-theft measures

The goal is to "make a stolen cellphone as worthless as an empty wallet,” according to New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer (NY-D), who plans to introduce legislation making it a crime to change the unique identifier each cell phone carries and who has been campaigning for several years to get the carriers to do something about cell-phone theft.

Being able to brick a cell phone that was stolen is a good first step, but regulations won't shut off the market for stolen phones until there is a central database identifying all the phones stolen in the U.S. so thieves can't activate them on other networks, Schumer said.

Cell carriers in England, much of Europe and a dozen countries in Africa and South America check new devices against the IMEI Database, a hot-property listing established in its present form in 2002 by the GSM Association. An earlier version, the Central Equipment Register went online in 1996.

Using those databases and their existing ability to track or shut off cell phones for violating usage policies, not paying their bills or other crimes against corporate profits, cell carriers in both Europe and the U.S. could have taken simple steps years ago to make sure a stolen phone was a useless phone, according to Mark Newman, market researcher at Informa Telecoms & Media.

"It is hard to find a reason why they haven’t done it before," Newman told the IDG News Service.

Surely it couldn't be because customers who've had a phone stolen usually have to buy a new one from their carrier, often at retail cost rather than the far-lower subsidized cost they offer when customers sign up for two-year contract commitments.

Even cell phone carriers – most of whom have well earned reputations for gouging customers, charging usurious prices for data and text, and who spent most of the net-neutrality debate last year complaining they were about to go out of business because of the demands of all their brand-new smartphone customers – even cell-phone carriers couldn't be so crass, manipulative and greedy as to allow their customers to be robbed and do nothing about it because they make money selling replacement hardware to victims?

Even cell carriers wouldn't do that, would they?

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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