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New Database ‘Blacklists’ Stolen Smartphones

by Ty Bowers  -   December 10, 2013
100724602 Copyright Natchapon L., 2013 Used under license from Shutterstock.com


Wireless devices outnumber humans in this world. In the United States, the number of Internet-connected phones and tablets now stands at 330 million, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association® (the U.S. has 317 million residents and counting). The popularity and value of these devices, which contain an extraordinary amount of user data, invite theft.

In the nation’s biggest cities, smartphones and other cell phones were stolen in 30 percent to 40 percent of all robberies in 2012, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Apple® products, in particular, have become so popular among thieves in New York City that police saw a 40-percent increase in thefts of iPads®, iPhones® and iPods® in the first nine months of 2012. Authorities in Boston, MA, have placed ads in the city’s buses and commuter trains warning riders of the threat of cell phone theft.

Washington, D.C., police were among the first in the nation to appeal to federal policymakers for a national solution to the scourge of wireless theft. D.C. saw a 54-percent increase in cell phone thefts from 2007 to 2011. Today, cell phones are taken in 38 percent of all D.C. robberies. 

Reuniting consumers with their lost or stolen phones and tablets, however, can prove difficult to downright impossible for law enforcement. A large and lucrative black market exists for these devices in the U.S. and abroad. Clamping down on the theft of wireless devices requires the concerted effort of law enforcement, government, industry and consumers.

On Nov. 27, CTIA announced the completion of a global, multi-carrier database for LTE smartphones designed to strike a decisive body blow on the after-market for stolen phones. “As more countries and more carriers around the world participate in the 3G and 4G/LTE databases, criminals will have fewer outlets since these stolen phones would be blacklisted and could not be reactivated,” CTIA said in a statement.

This global database is the biggest component of a multi-part plan devised by CTIA, FCC and police chiefs from major cities, which includes the following provisions:

  • implementation of U.S.-based databases for stolen phones and linking them among carriers;
  • educating consumers of features designed to secure or lock their smartphones and applications that will remotely lock/locate/erase data from their phones; and
  • public awareness initiatives that highlight preventative measures to protect smartphones from theft.

In fall 2012, the four largest wireless carriers in the U.S. – AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint – had switched on databases that would catalogue the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number of every device using their respective services. When a user reports a stolen phone or Internet-enabled device, the database blocks the IMEI number.

Previously, wireless carriers blocked the SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) card of stolen phones, which would prevent unauthorized calls. However, enterprising thieves easily found a way around that obstacle. They would install new SIM cards before re-selling the phones on the secondary market.

IMEI numbers are unique to every device, a bit like an automobile’s VIN plate. In the case of a stolen phone, carriers can essentially render it useless – a term called “bricking.”

The newly linked multi-carrier database will cover nearly all U.S. cell phone users, according to CTIA.

On its website, CTIA offers information to consumers about how to handle a lost or stolen smartphone or wireless device. The Association evaluates a number of applications available for download that can remotely track, lock or erase smartphones.

The FCC also offers a number of safety tips as well.


Thumbnail image: 128005364 Copyright Ambient Creations, 2013 Used under license from Shutterstock.com; Page one image: 3117613 Copyright Innershadows Photography, 2013 Used under license from Shutterstock.com

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