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

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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.

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