U.S. way behind in stolen cellphone databases

Paula Duffy's picture

Wireless phone companies have agreed to set up a joint database of stolen phones in conjunction with the U.S. government to help fight the explosion of phone thefts.

Wireless companies in the U.S. will have six months to create their own databases and have agreed to integrate them no later than 12 months after that.

The purpose of the effort is to assist in curbing the fastest growing kind of theft in the country. The Wall Street Journal reported that cellphones have now eclipsed cash as the most popular item to steal. Phones, particularly new models can net the thief some serious cash when posted and sold on Internet sites.

Verizon Wireless and Sprint have a leg up on a small portion of this exercise. Currently, both companies shut off service when their customers' report a theft. AT&T and T-Mobile do not.

Verizon and Sprint also track phones by their individual serial numbers while the other two networks utilize the GSM technology of SIM cards which identify their handsets. Reducing the market for stolen phones for AT&T and T-Mobile will require one more step in the process to make the phones inoperable and as one official told the Journal, "This is not a simple problem to solve."

Having a unique handset serial number is not a fail-safe method to start with because thieves can and do change them. There are no current laws on the federal level that criminalize defacing or change the numbers, which will likely be the next step in the crime fighting efforts surrounding the national database. There are statutes on the books around the country for this type of act when it is done to consumer electronics products.

How bad is the problem of stolen cellphones? It's big enough for companies driven by profits to take money from other areas of their business to create the system and cooperate with each other, which is a rare occurrence. It seems that the vocal complaints of law enforcement officials created the atmosphere that hatched this idea.

The U.K has had a national database for close to a decade and reports that it still deals with some 8,000 reported phone thefts each month. There were 10,000 reported incidents per month prior to the national database creation but as the Journal reports, the purchases of mobile phones has nearly doubled in that ten-year span. Two European countries as well as Australia have operated databases of their own for some time, with Australia's dating back to 2004.

This initial effort at curbing the rampant phone handset crime does not pretend to deal with the practice of thieves shipping the equipment outside the country for distribution, particularly to China. Cooperation on a worldwide scale would be necessary to do that and there is no telling if foreign governments will find the interest in engaging in that kind of effort.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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