Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Big Four wireless carriers to team with FCC on centralized stolen mobile phone database

The United States' Big Four wireless carriers and the FCC have agreed to work together to build a centralize database of mobile phones that have reported lost or stolen; devices in that database will be denied voice or data service if a user tries to activate them again.

Already, Verizon and Sprint have their own databases and block phones that are reported stolen from being reactivated. If you've ever bought a cell phone off of eBay, you may have seen a note saying "Clean ESN" on an auction; that note means the device can be activated.

Meanwhile, AT&T and Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile USA don't have such blocks in place. It's a little different with those two carriers, as their technology, unlike Verizon and Sprint's CDMA phones, use SIMs which are easily interchangeable (not between carriers, however). Ease of activation makes AT&T and T-Mobile phones more attractive to thieves.

All of the Big Four have agreed to be part of the new central database. Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC said,

"New technologies create new risks. We wanted to find a way to reduce the value of stolen smartphones."

Reselling cell phones is a lucrative business. According to the Wall Street Journal, Washington, D.C. saw cell phone-related robberies jump 54 percent from 2007 to 2011. In 2011, New York saw more than 26,000 incidents of electronics theft in just the first 10 months, with 81 percent of those involving cell phones.

AT&T and T-Mobile will roll out their own individual databases within six months (Verizon and Sprint already have their own, although it's probable that they will need to reformat theirs for the new program). These individual databases will then centralized over the following 12 months.

It is expected that smaller, regional carriers will join the database over two years, according to a person familiar with the plan. As part of the program, carriers will also roll out initiatives to prompt their cell phone users to enable password protection on their devices.

Extra protection is afforded to owners of smartphones through aftermarket programs. There apps on Android and built-in functionality on iOS that allows users to physically wipe their devices if they are lost or stolen. They can also make their devices "scream" or put up a message telling a thief or finder where to return the phone.

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