Criminal Justice

Should the cellphone industry do more to end the trade in stolen smartphones?


Stolen cellphones account for nearly half of the robberies in San Francisco and are such a common problem in Chicago that authorities urge riders not to use smartphones on the city’s mass transit system.

But the problem could be greatly reduced, some say, if handset makers and carriers did more to make it difficult for those who trade in stolen phones to use the devices after a theft is reported. Instead, as victims go out and buy more smartphones—and perpetrators use the stolen devices, the industry arguably reaps a benefit.

“Unlike other types of crimes, this is a crime that could be easily fixed with a technological solution,” District Attorney George Gascón of San Francisco tells the New York Times (reg. req.).

Although a national database keeps track of stolen cellphones, it’s not an effective deterrent because many are sent to other countries and it’s easy to modify the unique number that identifies the devices.

“The carriers are not innocent in this whole game. They are making profit off this,” said Cathy L. Lanier. She is police chief of the District of Columbia, the Times reports, where 1,829 cellphones were taken last year in 42 percent of all reported robberies, a record.

However, manufacturers and carriers say they are doing what they can to help victims prevent thefts. And privacy advocates point out that other suggested solutions to the problem, such as a law that would make it illegal to alter a phone’s unique identifier, interfere with the rights of legitimate owners who may wish to do so to prevent tracking.

See also:

Daily Mail: “The rise of the ‘ride-by’ muggings: Increase in number of bikers stealing smartphones from people’s hands fuels 8% rise in pick-pocketing”

The Mirror: “iPhone thief caught on CCTV: Watch moment sneaky robber snatches smartphone out of commuter’s hand”

Oregonian: “‘Apple picking’ is latest crime trend on TriMet buses and trains”

Reuters: “U.S. wireless carriers to create database to fight phone theft”

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