New Database Hopes To Curb Smartphone Theft

A new program is designed to make your smartphone worthless if it's stolen. The phones have become tempting targets for thieves around the country. The mobile phone industry, along with police and regulators, hope to reduce thefts by drying up the market for stolen smartphones.

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Hang on to that smartphone. Police departments around the country say lots of them are getting stolen. Today, some of the largest wireless carriers, along with police and regulators, announced a program that's aimed at reducing theft. It's designed to make your smartphone worthless if it's stolen. Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: A few months back, Alissa Walker was sitting on a train in Los Angeles, reading a book on her iPhone.

ALISSA WALKER: Somebody walked down the aisle and plucked the iPhone right out of my hand, then broke into a run and ran out the door as soon as the train stopped at the station.

BRADY: Walker was stunned. She ran after the thief, but her phone was gone and never coming back.

WALKER: The people at the store were very sympathetic. I guess this has been happening a lot. I mean, it has a name. It's called Apple picking is the big term that I heard when only after I had my phone stolen. But they're like, oh, you got Apple picked. Yeah, it happens a lot. It happens a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRADY: Walker learned a lesson that thousands of others around the country also are learning: Mobile phones are tempting targets for thieves. The industry doesn't track how many devices are stolen each year, but University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell says it's a problem.

DAVID MITCHELL: On my campus alone, we've had, in the last 13 months, 56 incidents where we've had a theft of a cell phone.

BRADY: In the District of Columbia, Police Chief Cathy Lanier says thieves resell the phones.

CATHY LANIER: There are some that are being fenced almost immediately on the Internet, Craigslist, things like that, some that are being fenced in shopping malls or parking lots of shopping malls.

BRADY: Even on the second-hand market, iPhones can fetch a couple hundred dollars. At the center of this new program will be a database of all the stolen mobile phones in the country. When someone tries to activate a phone on a wireless network, vendors will check the database. If the phone is stolen, it won't be activated. New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly says that makes a valuable device worthless.

RAY KELLY, COMMISSIONER: It's like draining the swamp to fight malaria. What we're doing is drying up the market for stolen cell phones and other type devices. And we think this is going to have a significant impact.

BRADY: The Federal Communications Commission, police chiefs and the industry all announced the program today in D.C. Christopher Guttman-McCabe, with the wireless industry association group CTIA, says the program will begin with just a few companies.

CHRISTOPHER GUTTMAN-MCCABE: It's our four largest carriers: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, as well as Nex-Tech wireless.

BRADY: Guttman-McCabe says smaller carriers will join later.

GUTTMAN-MCCABE: But out of the gate, that is sort of north of 90 percent of all consumers in the United States will be supported by this.

BRADY: Individual companies will develop their own databases first, then join them together later. That means it could be six months or longer before your carrier is included in the program. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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