The Washington Post

Remote shutdown of stolen cell phones could prevent robberies: Lanier

(Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

At a news conference, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she has joined with other police chiefs in lobbying the Federal Communications Commission, cellphone service providers and phone manufacturers to allow for the shutdown of stolen phones using unique identifiers within the devices.

“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?’”

Of approximately 400 robberies reported in 2012, as many as half have involved smartphone-type devices, Lanier said.

D.C. police are not alone in their concern. Lanier submitted a resolution on behalf of the Major City Chiefs, an organization of national police chiefs, to the FCC in support of such a move.

Officials in Houston said they have seen stolen electronics robberies jump recently, Lanier said. And the New York Police Department said nearly half of the 16,000 robberies reported in the first 10 months of 2011 were of personal technology — mostly cellphones — according to the office of U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Cathy L. Lanier (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The proposal supported by Lanier and the other chiefs would involve the use of iMEi numbers, a unique registration akin to a fingerprint, to shut down service to stolen phones within days.

That would make it much harder to track the stolen phones, which can be followed using their SIM cards. But police prefer the iMEi card method — people who report their phones are stolen would ask their providers to shut them down — because those cards can be replaced, leaving the phone usable and more valuable to would-be-buyers.

“What’s going to stop this is stopping the profit,” Lanier said Friday.

Ultimately, the industry can put simple technology in place, that already exists, that protects the customer and their property,” she said in a recent interview.

Generally, robberies appear to be on the rise citywide. In the first three weeks of 2012, according to police department statistics, they were up nearly 70 percent from last year’s numbers; armed robberies had more than doubled.

Lanier has been called to several meetings with neighborhood groups. She spoke with residents of Shepherd Park in January, and at at another appearance said police arrested more than 100 robbery suspects in the first three weeks of the year.

Authorities also said Gray and Lanier will encourage residents to provide information that helps them investigate robberies.

Lanier also said police plan to launch a program meant to encourage tips in robbery investigations with rewards of up to $10,000.

This item has been updated.

Read more: The Post’s crime coverage

Clarence Williams is the night police reporter for The Washington Post and has spent the better part of 13 years standing next to crime scene tape, riding in police cars or waking officials in the middle of night to gather information about breaking news in and around Washington.


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