Carriers to Turn Off Stolen Smartphones to Fight Thefts

Carriers Pledge to Turn Off Stolen Smartphones to Fight Thefts
A woman walks past a Verizon Wireless store while talking on her cell phone in New York. Photographer: Timothy Fadek/Bloomberg News.

Mobile carriers led by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. agreed to disable smartphones that are reported stolen to help stem an increase in device thefts.

The companies will begin blocking stolen devices within six months, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said at a press conference in Washington today with New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Cathy Lanier, who leads the police force in Washington.

“Carriers with the push of a button will be able to take highly prized stolen instruments and turn them into worthless pieces of plastic,” Kelly said. “What we’re doing is drying up the market for stolen cell phones and other types of devices.”

Mobile phone theft is a “growing epidemic,” with more than 40 percent of robberies in New York involving smartphones and other wireless devices, according to an FCC statement. Mobile providers taking part -- leading carrier Verizon, No. 2 AT&T, Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA Inc. -- cover 90 percent of U.S. subscribers, the FCC said.

Carriers in the U.S. plan to go beyond deactivating SIM cards that store a user’s account information and will deactivate the device itself, using the phone’s unique identification number.

The companies’ actions “will help to deter smartphone thefts and protect the personal information on them,” Steve Largent, president of CTIA-The Wireless Association, said in a statement.

Surge in Thefts

The industry will educate consumers about using applications and passwords to help safeguard personal data, said Largent, whose Washington-based trade group represents wireless carriers.

Nationwide there has been a sharp increase in robberies of communication devices including phones, smartphones and tablet computers, often through violent attacks, the Major Cities Chiefs Association said in a Feb. 12 resolution. The group represents police chiefs in the 50 largest U.S. cities including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The chiefs association in its resolution asked the FCC to require that telecommunications companies have the capability to track and disable stolen devices.

Phones are stolen in neighborhoods, university campuses, trains and buses, Lanier said, adding that “we saw our communities being increasingly victimized and assaulted.”

Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, filed in March a bill, which is awaiting an initial vote, that would rely on identification numbers and a national database of stolen phones so devices couldn’t be used on a different carrier. The wireless industry should protect smartphone users from theft and violence, Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said in a March 23 letter to Largent.

“The market for stolen cell phones is now closed,” Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said at today’s announcement.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE