Ever since cell phone carriers created a national registry of stolen phones on Nov. 1, it’s become much harder, if not impossible, to reactivate one in the U.S. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad: The database isn’t likely to rob thieves of the desire to steal your phone.
All major U.S. cell phone companies, including Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T), T-Mobile, and Sprint (S), are now sharing the serial numbers of stolen phones through the registry. Like VIN numbers on cars, these unique IDs are branded onto the hardware of the device and are hard to tamper with. If a thief tries to pop out a SIM card and use a phone purchased from one U.S. company to sign up for service with another, the serial number will automatically show up as belonging to a stolen phone.
But wireless providers in other countries aren’t part of the registry. And savvy iPhone thieves have realized that the way to get around it is by selling smartphones overseas, according to Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier.
Secondhand dealers buy used phones for cash, then pool and sell them to middlemen who resell them to retailers in Africa or China, says Lanier, who led the effort to establish the U.S. registry. A stolen phone can go for $400 abroad, she says. “That completely voids the blacklist we worked a year and half to put in place,” Lanier told me. “The new entrepreneurs … have created new challenges for us.”
Lanier has recently begun to point fingers at companies she says are facilitating the black market. One is the large video-game retailer, Gamestop, in Grapevine, Tex., which buys used smartphones. “We’ve found stolen phones in their possession,” Lanier said on Feb. 19 on a D.C. local news program, NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt. Lanier said on the show that Gamestop has started to provide Washington police with serial numbers of the used phones it buys and is considering ending the practice of paying cash for phones. “We are working with police,” Gamestop spokeswoman Wendy Dominguez writes in an e-mail.
The Federal Communications Commission is in the early stages of an effort to crack down on the black market overseas. The agency recently signed a data-sharing agreement with Mexico; wireless companies in Mexico and the U.S. are now sharing serial numbers of stolen phones. The FCC is looking to sign more agreements with other countries, says FCC spokesman Neil Grace. Hopefully that will happen soon. It might be the only way to stop some guy on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, from listening to your playlists, checking out your vacation pictures, or worse–stealing your identity.