National database aims to catch smartphone thieves

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

The feds have teamed up with law enforcement and the wireless industry to curb the theft of cellphones by essentially rendering them useless once pilfered and fingering the thieves if they try to activate them. U.S. mobile operators will ban any phone or 3G/4G tablet reported stolen from their networks and will work together to ensure that thieves don’t simply transfer stolen devices to a competitor’s service.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, roughly 40 percent of all robberies in major metropolitan cities involve cellphone theft, with criminals specifically targeting high-end devices like the iPhone, tablets and other smartphones.  “This endangers the physical safety of people all over the country,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski at a D.C. press conference Tuesday morning.

The FCC will work with U.S. operators to set up their individual databases, which will track unique device identifying numbers, and with the CTIA, the major carrier trade association, to coordinate those databases, making them accessible to other operators and local law enforcement agencies all over the country. The CTIA said the database among U.S. GSM operators will be set up by Oct. 31. The trade group and its members will also set up a separate LTE database in 2013 that will span all U.S. operators networks and work with international operators to prevent phones stolen in the U.S. from being activated overseas.

There’s still one problem. The unique International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number used by GSM, UMTS and iDEN can be changed if a thief has the right equipment. Activating a stolen phone with an altered IMEI could be as easy as purchasing a new SIM card, even with the database in place. What’s more, there’s currently no law on the books making altering IMEI numbers illegal.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he hopes to change that and plans to introduce legislation that would criminalize such tampering, making it akin to changing the vehicle identification number (VIN) on a car. “If you steal a cellphone it will be a worthless endeavor,” Schumer said at the press conference. “If you try to sell a stolen cellphone you will get caught.”

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