No sooner were cell phones invented than ne’er-do-wells began stealing them. When cell phones evolved into smart phones, discriminating thieves noticed and kept busy.
Their size, one of their selling points, makes them convenient targets; they’re easy to make off with. A thief needn’t reach into a purse or a pocket, though that happens. Thieves are content to snatch phones even as their owners are preoccupied with them — sometimes talking, sometimes performing some of the other functions that make them so popular. Even worse, victims sometimes are beaten or killed.
In New York City, four in 10 property crimes involve cell phones. And the problem isn’t limited to New York; more than 3,500 cell phones were reported stolen last year in Houston. It’s anyone’s guess how many thefts went unreported.
Recognizing the difficulty of preventing determined thieves from stealing smart phones, officials have come up with another idea — a smart one at that — to discourage thieves. The idea is to render the phones useless to thieves, who now only have to replace the SIM card (subscriber identity module) and dump the victim’s information to make a phone their own. Then they can enjoy it themselves or sell it to a buyer who won’t ask too many questions.
In part as the result of pressure from federal lawmakers, five of the biggest cell phone companies and the Federal Communications Commission have agreed to develop a database of ID numbers embedded in phones. Thus, when a phone is reported stolen, the companies can go to the database and permanently deactivate the phone. Participating carriers are AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon; together they serve 90 percent of smart phone users. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who has pushed for this database, said deactivating the phones would make them “as useless as an empty wallet.”
Well, almost. Thieves with the right knowledge would still be able to make a stolen phone operable by “wiping” its ID number, though a bipartisan effort in Congress is under way to make such modifications a federal crime. As for the database, it won’t exist for about six months; if voluntary progress is too slow, regulators can pursue legislation to force the issue.
In the meantime, you might not have to be as smart as your smart phone, but you’d be wise to stay a step ahead of those who want to make your phone theirs.