AT&T plans to introduce a service that will allow customers to sign up a lost or stolen device to a “block” list that will “deny voice, data and SMS access to any individual phone or tablet while keeping their account intact,” The Verge reported Friday. In other words, the device would be unusable to the thief, even if he or she swapped out the SIM cards. AT&T is planning to introduce the new service on Tuesday, according to the site’s sources who have seen documentation sent to the carrier’s customer service representatives.
Mobile devices are involved in about 40 percent of all robberies in major metropolitan areas, and thieves are known to target iPhones, iPads and other high-end devices, according to the FCC. In that context, it’s not a huge surprise that the longest-standing iPhone carrier, which sold 17.5 million of the devices last year alone, more than Verizon or newcomer Sprint, is one of the first to find a way to trip up thieves targeting iPhones and other smartphones.
This is also likely part of a Federal Communications Commission initiative laid out in April that called for the creation of a national database of stolen mobile devices that all operators and law enforcement could access. Carriers and their industry groups are on board.
Rendering useless a SIM-card swap for stolen devices is great. But here’s a big hole in this strategy. If a thief knows how to alter a device’s unique IMEI number they can still purchase a new SIM card and the phone will work.
A carrier like Verizon can simply suspend service for stolen devices. But the kind of measure like this one from AT&T is more important to GSM carriers who employ SIM cards because its IMEI number can be added to a database and that device, if it tried to be activated with another number or another service, could possibly be recovered.