Consumer Tech Radar

About this Blog: Bill Snyder analyzes the consumer technologies--gadgets, software, electronics, and everything else--that matter to everyday techies and businesspeople, and explains why these technologies and products should be on your radar -- or not.

Consumer Tech Radar

Cell Phone Theft: Why Carriers Won't Help You Prevent It

A simple piece of technology would greatly reduce the value of stolen cell phones. So why do most of the major carriers refuse to use it?

to Mobile/Wireless |

Smart phone theft, an all-too-common crime that can turn violent, may seem like one of those problems we just have to live with. But that’s not really true. A technology that’s already in place could sharply reduce the value of stolen mobile devices and reduce the incentive to steal them.

But with the exception of Sprint, the major U.S. carriers refuse to even consider a simple step that would protect their customers, despite pleas from dozens of big city police chiefs.

First a bit of background: You probably know that almost all mobile phones contain a SIM card, a small, removable circuit board containing the phone’s ID, its address book and so on. The card tells the carrier that the phone is registered on its network. If say, you want to give your phone to someone else, all they have to do is replace the SIM card and then register the phone with a compatible carrier. Many people in Europe have SIM cards from carriers in other countries, so when they travel, they simply pop in the appropriate card.

Unfortunately, thieves know that too. When they steal a phone they do the same thing, and wind up with a working phone to use or sell. If the SIM card was the only identifier a carrier could read, there wouldn’t be much of a technology fix available.

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However, nearly every mobile phone has another signature: the International Mobile Equipment Identity or IMEI number. Older phones had something similar called the ESN. One of those numbers is embedded in the circuitry of the phone and it’s still there whether the original SIM card is in place or not. On many phones you can see the IMEI identifier by typing  *#06#. When a phone is registered on a carrier’s network, the carrier sees that number as well.

If the carrier knew that the number belonged to a stolen phone, it could simply refuse to allow it on its network, an action that would "brick" the phone, that is, make it useless. But since the carriers don’t track IMEI numbers, they don’t know if a phone has been stolen or not. If they wanted to, they could create a database and check it when a request comes in to activate a new phone.

This is exactly what the police chiefs, through an organization called Major Cities Chief’s, have asked for, and they’re gaining support. California Senator Barbara Boxer supports their plan, and notes that carriers in Australia and the United Kingdom already have similar safeguards in place.  (You can read the statement of the police chiefs).

So what's the problem? As far as I can tell, the first news organization to pick up on the police chiefs' concern was NBC, which aired a piece on the issue last week.

And here's the response their reporter got from the carriers. Sprint said it is already bricking phones when a customer reports them stolen, and is open to discussing the formation of a shared national database of ESN and IMEI numbers. The other major carriers, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T, expressed no such willingness. And a spokesman for the CTIA, which represents most members of the wireless industry, offered the exceedingly lame response that it was a good idea, but it shouldn’t be implemented until other countries, such as Mexico and China do the same. In other words, forget about it.

I don’t know why the carriers are saying no to this. Maybe it would cost too much to implement the database, or it wouldn't work for some reason neither the police chiefs nor I are aware of. But they didn’t say that.

If one were to be cynical, you might think the reason was that a stolen phone with a new SIM card equals more business for the carrier, plus the additional revenue of selling a new phone to the original victim of the theft. I’d hate to think that, but given the crummy, anti-consumer attitudes we’ve seen from the carriers over many years, it’s not all that hard to imagine.

There's one step you can take. Write down the IMEI number of your phone and call it in to your carrier if your device is lost or stolen. If they don’t promise to brick it, give them an earful and complain to your Senator or Representative. No one should risk a beating from a cell phone thief because a carrier wants to make a few extra bucks.


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