The Washington Post

Wireless carriers partner with FCC, police on database of stolen cellphones

The nation’s largest wireless carriers agreed to help federal regulators and local law enforcement crack down 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 if their devices are stolen and the carriers will block the phones from being used again.

Cellphone theft has been rampant in cities across the country. More than 40 percent of robberies in New York involve smartphones. In the District, 34 percent of all robberies are of cellphones, and cellphone theft increased 54 percent between 2007 and 2011.

Some carriers already shut down voice and data service of stolen phones upon request. They will also 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 United States.

The Federal Communications Commission jointly announced the industry effort at a news conference Tuesday with D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and Police Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department Charles H. Ramsey, according to the Associated Press.

The plan, unveiled by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the police chiefs, would criminalize efforts to tamper with the identifiers on the hardware of phones.

Lanier said she welcomes the industry move, since her police agency and others around the country have been inundated with cellphone robbery reports in recent years. And while she expressed a desire for the database to be online sooner than six months, she said the effort is a sign that local, federal and legislative officials can be effective in combating 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 [the effort is] 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. At the height of the trend, 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 robberies now involve phones.

Until the technology fixes are in place, Lanier said, she will continue to pour department resources into the problem and hopes people will remain vigilant to keep from becoming easy targets. 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 and at stores that fence the goods by reducing the value from buyers.

“Individual companies are coming online right away. So a buyer [of a stolen phone] could make a bad investment tomorrow,” Lanier warned. “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

Cecilia Kang is a senior technology correspondent for The Washington Post.
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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