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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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.

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