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National database aims to catch smartphone thieves

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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(s aapl), 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.”

6 Responses to “National database aims to catch smartphone thieves”

  1. And what about phones who are reported lost by the owner after he sold it? The swindler benefits the buyer ends up with a useless phone. This system does not work!

  2. will this database be strictly ‘stolen’ or will it be like current cdma ‘bad esn’ lists which are a mix of stolen, lost, suspected fraud and unpaid bills?

    also will the be retroactive?

    will people who have been using phones for a while suddenly have their phones shut off?

  3. This is great for the industry since it will reduce phone theft by casual thieves that steal phones for their own use.

    The professional thieves that resell stolen phones online to an unsuspecting third parties will still benefit. The new buyer will be unable to activate the phone and the thief will still have the money. No real way around this situation, other than buyer beware.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Brian,

      One thing you can try is asking the seller for the IMEI number of the device he’s trying to sell. It’s easy to find and if he doesn’t provide it than he’s either really lazy or trying to sell you stolen goods. Once the database is set up you can then call the operator you plan to activate the device with and ask if there is a block on the IMEI number. Hopefully they’ll make the stolen phone database public. So you can check IMEI numbers online.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi MS,

      Well, there’s a big protection in place. By doing what you’re saying the operator would essentially be reporting your phone stolen, which would be illegal if your phone isn’t stolen.