Carriers agree to try and prevent mobile theft – but personal digital security is key

Last updated: 20 March 2014

I imagine, like me, you probably carry your mobile phone with you all the time.  I’ve never had mine stolen, but mobile phone theft is actually a really big problem globally, but especially in the United States.  Did you know that in 2011, 42 percent of all property crimes of individuals in New York involved a cell phone?  A high number, but it makes sense why mobile phones are attractive to criminals.

I’ll explain why.  You probably know this already, but your mobile phone is equipped with a unique IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity).  The IMEI identifies your phone as a legitimate device that can access the mobile network.  So, let’s say that your mobile device through is stolen.  You call your carrier and let them know, and they deactivate the phone so it can no longer be used on that particular network.  Some carriers deactivate the IMEI, some deactivate the SIM.  This is ineffective, however, in stopping a criminal from using your phone on another network, or selling it on the black market for this purpose.

A new agreement by mobile device carriers aims to end this problem.  Called for by US Senator Charles E. Schumer and New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly, all major cell phone carriers in the United States and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have agreed to set up an integrated database of IMEIs.  When this “cross-carrier database” is in place by November 2013, any mobile device will be flagged when stolen, so it cannot be activated on any network ever again.

Charles Schumer’s goal is to “make a stolen cell phone as worthless as an empty wallet. By permanently disabling stolen cell phones, we can take away the incentive to steal a cell phone in the first place and put a serious dent in the growing rates of iPhone and smartphone theft.” He is also planning on introducing legislation that would make it a federal crime to tamper or alter a cell phone IMEI numbers in order to activate a stolen phone in the United States.

The cross-carrier database is a commendable first step towards stopping the “epidemic” of mobile device theft in major US cities – especially high among smartphones and iPhones in particular as this story recalls. Being protected by carriers is great, but users still need to protect themselves and their own data.  This means being careful about what personal or enterprise information (including photos, videos and email) you keep on your device as, according to identity theft expert Robert Siciliano, crooks are increasingly recognizing that data can be worth more than the device.  Always secure your phone with a password, passphrase, passcode – whatever your phone offers – so that if it is stolen, your information cannot be easily accessed.

In the end, being vigilant about your own digital security is extremely important and will complement the steps that government, technology providers, mobile carriers, and anyone else take to protect you.