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Smartphone thefts are driving an epidemic of violent crime
On February 27th in the middle of the afternoon, a 16-year old girl was walking through San Francisco's Mission district when she was ordered at gun point to hand over her cell phone. The robbery was one of 10 serious crimes in the city that day, and they all involved cell phones. Three were stolen at gun point, three at knife point, and four through brute force.
Incidents of cell phone theft have been rising for several years and are fast becoming an epidemic. IDG News Service collected data on serious crimes in San Francisco from November to April and recorded 579 thefts of cell phones or tablets, accounting for 41 percent of all serious crime. On several days, like Feb. 27, the only serious crime in the city was cell phone thefts.
In just over half the incidents, victims were punched, kicked or otherwise physically intimidated for their phones, and in a quarter of robberies, users were threatened with guns or knives.
This isn't just happening in tech-loving San Francisco, either. The picture is similar across the United States.
In Washington, D.C., cell phone thefts account for 40 percent of robberies while in New York City they make up more than half of all street crime. There are no hard numbers on which phones are most popular, but those most in demand by thieves appear to be those most in demand by users: iPhones.
It's easy to see why the thefts are so rampant. Criminals can quickly turn stolen phones into several hundred dollars in cash and phone users are often easy targets as they walk down the street engrossed in the screen and oblivious to their surrounding.
Why is this still happening?
It shouldn't be this way. With built-in satellite positioning and reliance on a network connection, it should be easier to track them down. So why is theft still such a problem?
A big reason is that, until recently, there had been little to stop someone using a stolen cell phone. Carriers quickly suspend phone lines to avoid thieves running up high charges, but the handset itself could be resold and reused. It's was and still is easy with modern smartphones that accept SIM cards, which were introduced to allow legitimate users to switch phones easily.
Reacting to pressure from law enforcement and regulators, the U.S.'s largest cell phone carriers agreed early last year to establish a database of stolen cell phones. The database blocks the IMEI (international mobile equipment identity) number, a unique ID in the cellphone akin to a car's VIN (vehicle identification number). The number is transmitted to the cellular network when the phones connects and remains with the phone no matter what SIM card is inserted.
In theory, once added to the list, a phone cannot be activated on any U.S. carrier. But the system is not perfect. For it to work, phone users must notify their carrier of the theft and in some cases provide the IMEI themselves. There are also limitations to its scope.
"The blacklist is good, but one of the easiest things we can do to make it more effective is more worldwide data sharing," said Kevin Mahaffey , CTO of mobile security company Lookout. "There is some sharing in different parts of the world, but not all operators share their lists."
In the U.S., that's beginning to happen, said Chris Guttman-McCabe , vice president of regulatory affairs at the CTIA. AT&T and T-Mobile, which share a common network technology, have a common database and all U.S. carriers plan to have a single database up and running by November that covers phones based on the new LTE cellular technology.
U.S. carriers have also begun supplying information to an international database that covers 43 countries, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been talking to Canada, Mexico and some South American countries about getting on board, said Guttman-McCabe.
So now, the main push is to educate users about the existence of the block list and get them to secure their phones with a password, screen lock and software that can remotely track or wipe a stolen handset. Smartphone makers committed to include this information with new handsets sold from the beginning of this year.