FCC: Too Many Phones Still Being Stolen - InformationWeek

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12/5/2014
12:20 PM
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FCC: Too Many Phones Still Being Stolen

FCC tasks carriers and law enforcement to do more to deter smartphone theft.

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More than 1 million cellphones are stolen in the US each year, and the FCC is not happy about it. A new agency report says wireless-network operators and law-enforcement agencies can and should do more to help prevent phone thefts. There are some hurdles in the way, to be sure, but the FCC is confident the industry can leap over them, as long as everyone works together.

The FCC believes smartphone theft is a "major issue" facing not only consumers, but law enforcement and the entire mobile ecosystem. Phones are expensive to replace, and often contain vast stores of personal (and often corporate) data. Early this year, the agency commissioned the Mobile Device Theft Prevention (MDTP) working group to research the issue and offer recommendations by the end of the year. The MDTP found significant shortcomings in existing preventative measures.

To start, the statistics covering national and international smartphone thefts aren't up to speed. Though network operators maintain a database of stolen device IDs, not all the carriers participate and law enforcement is barely aware of the database's existence. This means police departments aren't adding the IDs of stolen smartphones to the database. Carriers are supposed to check the database before activating used phones to determine if they are stolen. With neither side consistently participating in the program, it has pretty much failed.

[Should the Feds have access to data on alleged criminals' phones? See Why FBI Is Wrong On Encryption Workaround.]

Data from just 21 police jurisdictions (out of 18,000), covering about 19.7 million people, suggests the US had a phone-theft rate of 368.9 per 100,000 people through 2013. Extrapolated, the FCC says this represents more than 1 million thefts per year, which is far fewer than the 3.1 million yearly thefts claimed by Consumer Reports. The FBI believes smartphone theft accounts for a whopping 10% of all thefts in the country each year. There is, however, a caveat.

Cellphone thefts, 2013 vs. 2014.
(Image: MDTP report)
Cellphone thefts, 2013 vs. 2014.
(Image: MDTP report)

"There is considerable concern that the reported theft rate may be under reported, especially in cities that have not established a law enforcement focus on this criminal activity area," wrote the MDTP. "The more troubling issue at this point is that it is challenging to obtain and analyze the data; thus there is insufficient data to determine the extent and trend of criminal activity." Further, the MDTP can't determine where all the stolen phones go. Some are shipped out of the country, but many simply vanish. Clearly, it is a global problem.

In the plus column, the MDTP found that wireless trade group CTIA and other organizations have voluntarily agreed to certain protective measures. Further, smartphone OS makers, including Apple, Google, and Microsoft, all offer device encryption, remote kill switches, and remote wipe. Alone, these measures don't seem to be deterring theft. The FCC thinks when all are used together they will be more effective.

"There is no single technology 'silver bullet' that will eliminate phone theft and therefore a complementary suite of technical and operational mitigation techniques will need to be made available and applied to gain additional impact to this issue," said the working group. The group believes a national framework is needed to make all players more aware of the dangers and take preventative measures. Moreover, carriers and law enforcement need to participate meaningfully to have an impact.

The Working Group recommended: carriers develop a more effective way to block stolen phones from gaining network access; more US operators need to participate in the voluntary stolen phone database; all parties need to collect better data for improved insight; law enforcement needs to be made more aware of the tools at their disposal; and consumers need to be more educated on steps they can take to prevent theft and protect their data.

While the industry works to move these measures forward, smart IT managers have already put best practices into effect. All employees should use passwords to lock their phones; all work data should be encrypted; all devices should be registered with a "Find My Device" service (typically offered for free); and employees should be taught how to prevent phones from being stolen in the first place.

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Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies. View Full Bio

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Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
12/8/2014 | 8:57:22 AM
Re: Wolf guarding the chicken coop
Exactly - the theft steal phones but they can continue using it. If we can successful render stolen phones as useless, then there won't  be much attempt to commit such kind of silly crime.
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
12/8/2014 | 6:50:25 AM
Re: Wolf guarding the chicken coop
If you don't buy insurance, the carrier also benefits from selling the replacement device at the non-subsidized cost. Carriers are the a big part of the solution. If the phones are rendered useless once reported stolen, the demand for stolen devices goes down. Fewer people are interested in stealing the phone that turns into a paperweight
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
12/6/2014 | 9:03:09 PM
Re: Wolf guarding the chicken coop
The carriers sell you insurance and then wait for you to get robbed, replace the phone, and everything gets renewed. Good way to keep customers coming back and not switching. Makes sense. 
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
12/6/2014 | 12:17:59 PM
Re: Wolf guarding the chicken coop
I agree that if this is a problem and the interested party( cell phone companies) doesn't want to do something regarding it, it means that somehow it is connected.  Each time I take the subway in NYC, the regularly announce that people should watch their smartphones.  If smartphone companies, cellular carriers and authorities do not cooperate, us users, will suffer the consequences.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
12/6/2014 | 1:11:03 AM
Re: Wolf guarding the chicken coop
Technological advances will solve this problem in the form of things like biometrics. This is something fairly provable on mobile devices because they are so personal.

I think in the case of personal information being stolen, new virtualization techiques will be able to allow next-gen phones to be more like dumb terminals that can be wiped and shifted to a new device in the event of things like theft. 
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
12/5/2014 | 4:38:16 PM
Re: Wolf guarding the chicken coop
When mobile carriers profit from phone insurance, there's a disincentive to stop the theft that drives that product offering.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
12/5/2014 | 1:25:51 PM
Wolf guarding the chicken coop
Wouldn't shock me if the carriers were running their own organized theft rings. Who benefits more than them when a phone is stolen? So are we surprised they are dragging their feet on this?
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