When Mike Licata joined the New York Police Department six years ago, he pictured himself arresting burglars—not hunting down iPhones snatched from the hands of subway riders. But as smartphones have become ubiquitous, the job of an NYPD cop has changed. Licata says he’s spent countless hours canvassing Manhattan’s Lower East Side with distraught victims hoping to catch a glimpse of the thief and sitting with them in the dingy rooms of the 9th Precinct while they use Apple’s (AAPL) Find My iPhone program to track their stolen phone.
Sometimes that search traces the device to a building, which isn’t much help as there can be hundreds of apartments inside. When Licata tells people he may not be able to retrieve their iPhone, they’re horrified that strangers will be able to see their most personal texts and photos. “I’ve got to deal with everyone’s emotions,” Licata says. “It’s a nightmare.”
Scenes like these play out every day in police precincts across the country. According to the Federal Communications Commission, cell phones were stolen in more than 30 percent of all robberies nationwide last year. Police in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco say more than 40 percent of their 2012 robbery cases involved them. In New York, according to the NYPD, thefts of Apple products jumped 40 percent in the first nine months of the year.
On their own, local officials have little chance of finding a stolen smartphone, and there’s no shortage of people willing to quickly resell a device on the black market. So local police departments are seeking a federal solution to the problem. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier appealed to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski for help early last year after seeing phone thefts rise 54 percent from 2007, the year Apple released the first iPhone. “We were having as many as 20 robberies a day,” Lanier says. “People were being beaten, stomped, and kicked in the process.”
The FCC leaned on the industry. By November, 12 companies, including Verizon (VZ), Sprint (S), AT&T (T), T-Mobile (DTE:GR), Apple, Samsung Electronics, and Motorola Mobility (GOOG), had created a national registry for logging the serial numbers of stolen phones. This will make them easier to track and may prevent thieves and buyers of black market devices from using a stolen phone purchased from one company to get service from another. By April 30, customers activating a new phone will be greeted with a message alerting them that there are ways to lock the device remotely if it’s stolen. Wireless providers will also begin promoting other security features, such as apps that can remotely erase data.
FCC spokesman Neil Grace says it’s too early to know whether the registry has been effective. Government officials say that as they crack down, criminals are likely to change tactics. Lanier says some are already getting around the national registry by selling phones abroad. The FCC is trying to make agreements with foreign authorities to share stolen phone data, according to Grace. So far, one deal has been inked with Mexico.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)plans to introduce a bill in Congress this year that would make it a federal crime to tamper with a cell phone’s serial number—another way for thieves to foil law enforcement. But with other pressing issues on the calendar, Schumer doesn’t expect lawmakers to consider his proposal any time soon. Meanwhile, police say people can stop making themselves easy prey by looking up from their screens and paying more attention to what’s going on around them. As Licata laments, “People are absorbed on their phones.”