The nation’s largest wireless carriers agreed to help federal regulators and local law enforcement crackdown on cellphone theft by creating a centralized database to identify stolen phones and render them useless.
Within six months, consumers will be able to call Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile when their device is stolen and the carriers will block the wireless phones from being used again.
Some carriers already shut down voice and data service of stolen phones upon request. They will use unique identifiers to keep track of stolen phones on their network. Within 18 months, companies will combine those individual databases in an effort to contain the widespread and fast-growing trade of stolen wireless devices inside and outside the U.S.
The Federal Communications Commission will jointly announce the industry effort in a press conference Tuesday with D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier and New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly.
Along with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the police chiefs, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will announce a bill that would criminalize efforts to tamper with the identifiers on the hardware of phones.
Cellphone theft has been among the rampant crimes in cities across the country. More than 40 percent of robberies in New York City involve smartphones. In the District, 34 percent of all robberies are of cellphones. Cellphone theft increased 54 percent between 2007 and 2011 in the District.
Lanier said she welcomes the industry move after her police agency and others around the country have been inundated with such robbery reports in recent years. And while she wished for the database to be online sooner than six months, she said this is still a sign that local, federal and legislative officials can be effective to combat common problems, particularly when partnering with commercial interests.
“I would like it be in place yesterday, but for a problem that has been in place for some many years, I think it’s huge,” Lanier said. “We all have to do our part. This is our society saying we’re not going to take it anymore.”
D.C. police faced a rash of robbery reports between October and February and at the height of the epidemic, officials said that 58 percent of robberies involved smartphones. Through undercover operations, increased targeting of robberies and other tactics, Lanier said that only about 34 percent of current robberies now involve phones.
Until the technology fixes are in place, Lanier said she will continue pour department resources into the problem and hopes the public will remain vigilant to prevent from becoming an easy target. But she also hopes news of these changes will begin to dry up the flow of cash from reselling stolen phones, on Web sites such as Craigslist or at corner stores that fence the goods by reducing the value from buyers.
“Individual companies are coming online right away. So a buyer could make a bad investment tomorrow,” Lanier warned. “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
Read more: The Post’s public safety coverage