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New AT&T service could block future smartphone thieves

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Smartphones are one of the most commonly stolen devices today, and AT&T(s T) looks close to rolling out a service that should go further in discouraging device theft in the future.

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(s VZW) or newcomer Sprint(s S), 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.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Nisha A

7 Responses to “New AT&T service could block future smartphone thieves”

  1. is this only for devices stolen after tuesday? or can any previously stolen device be put on the list?

    i suspect many stolen phones end up at second hand stores and ebay, i am wondering if a day will come when millions of people wake up and there phone(that they had bought in good faith) suddenly have stopped working.

    what makes this so different than current CDMA blacklists is that it is quite possible that someone may buy a working phone that later stops working since there will may commonly be a delay between the theft and the owner placing the block request.

  2. Dave Ingram

    Why don’t US carriers do what UK, NZ and Australian (& probably most of Europe) carriers do, by having a shared black list?

    If I report my phone stolen, it will not work on Optus, Vodafone or Telsta here in Oz.

    Locking the phone to one SIM is a nuisance when you do need to change over SIM card.

    Some apps are around for Android that will send an SMS to a fixed number whenever the SIM card changes too, which tells you who has the phone.

  3. Stuart

    Don’t GSM devices allow you to set a PIN lock so that no other SIM can be used unless they know the lock code? This protection won’t help if you unlock the device (which makes it more valuable) and use a T-Mobile sim or use it in another country. Any their clever enough to change the IMEI is clever enough to know how to circumvent any sort of restrictions.

    • Preston

      Exactly. I worry about this enough as it is.
      It makes it easier for them to screw you over. Buy something off of Craigslist.. It gets reported stolen by them and you’re out quite a bit of money!