The proposal may meet stiff resistance from wireless carriers. “This isn’t the solution, because when you look at other countries that have tried this, it doesn’t work,” said Amy Storey, spokeswoman for CTIA, the national wireless trade group.
Police have found organized criminal outfits that ship phones overseas, according to CTIA general counsel Michael Altschul: In San Francisco, investigators found stolen smartphones that were shipped abroad, then reactivated or sold for parts.
“Cellphones are small and very valuable and easy to ship out of one country and resell in another that doesn’t have access to a database held by law enforcement or care to access the database,” Altschul said. “So the effectiveness of such programs are limited.”
Police have other tools at their disposal. D.C. police now offer cash rewards of up to $10,000 for information leading to the conviction of someone who has stolen a device or resold a stolen one. And undercover Metro officers look for would-be robbers on the subway, sometimes posing as sleeping commuters who display cellphones and then swooping in when someone grabs the devices.
Some stolen phones can be tracked using their SIM cards. But SIM cards can be replaced, leaving the phone usable, untraceable and valuable to would-be buyers. Lanier wants to target the market for stolen phones. “What’s going to stop this is stopping the profit,” Lanier said.
The idea, Lanier says, is not to combat the international export of stolen phones by organized criminals, but to discourage street crimes that put people at risk.
“I hear 15 stories or so every morning in my crime briefings,” Lanier said. “We are being clobbered with these robberies, and they’re looking for the same thing. They say, ‘Give me your purse. Now where is your phone?’ ”
Staff writer Theola Labbé-DeBose contributed to this report.