With 1.6 million smart phones stolen last year, efforts under way to stem the losses

Consumer Reports News
June 3, 2013

Based on our latest nationally representative survey of adult Internet users, Consumer Reports projected that 1.6 million American consumers were victims of smart phone theft in 2012. A variety of possible solutions are being proposed by law enforcement and industry experts.

Such theft is a major problem in big cities, law enforcement officials say. Fifty percent of the robberies committed in San Francisco, for example, are of mobile devices, according to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.

Law enforcement, legislators, and the phone industry are working on a variety of solutions to reduce the number of victims. The best approach, most say, is to make it unprofitable to steal a phone by rendering the phone inoperable once the theft has been reported.

CTIA, an association that represents the wireless industry, is working on setting up a database that consumers can use to report stolen phones. Once the database is operational, when a stolen phone is reported and added to it, wireless providers who participate in the new system will refuse to activate that phone, rendering it useless. The database is set to go into effect in late November.

See our guide to Internet security for news, tips, and advice about staying safe online.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) wants to supplement the database with a law he recently introduced that would make it a federal crime to tamper with a phone's unique ID, which the operators of the database rely upon to identify individual handsets.

But some law-enforcement officials aren't convinced that's the most effective path. For starters, says Gascon, the database as announced won't prevent phones from being shipped overseas and activated there. In addition, he points out, not every carrier is participating in the database, potentially leaving many phones uncovered.

Gascon has been trying to persuade phone manufacturers to build protections into the phone's hardware. "The only way to have an impact is, once the phone is stolen, it has to be rendered inoperable," Gascon says. He believes that's technically possible, but he hasn't gotten a commitment to do so from the manufacturers he's spoken with so far.

"Corporations have an obligation to be good corporate citizens," says Gascon. "Part of that is providing a product that's going to be safe."

Take a look at our story, Keep Your Phone Safe, for tips on securing your smart phone.

UPDATE: On June 4, our privacy expert Jeff Fox will be presenting Consumer Reports' latest findings on smart phone security at the Federal Trade Commission's public forum in DC, as a member of a panel on how consumers can protect their mobile devices. Watch a live stream of the public forum between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/workshops/mobile-security/.

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