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Smartphone Theft: What Is Best Defense?

While mobile network operators are creating a global database to track stolen smartphones, some police say that's not enough. New York's Attorney General wants more from smartphone makers.
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The latest smartphones might feature screens with unparalleled colors and clarity, cutting-edge cameras, and the ability to run a bewildering array of apps. But why don't they build in better loss prevention?

That's the gist of a plea issued this week by New York attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman, who's written to the CEOs of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung, urging them to "help crack down on cell phone theft" by making it more difficult for thieves to wipe stolen devices' memory and resell the devices.

"This is a multi-billion dollar industry that produces some of the most popular and technologically advanced consumer electronic products in the world," said Schneiderman in a statement. "Surely we can work together to find solutions that lead to a reduction in violent street crime targeting consumers."

[ Fend off gadget thieves with these tips. Read iPad Heist At JFK Highlights Mobile Tech Risks. ]

Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung -- plus Motorola, which is owned by Google -- control 90% of the U.S. smartphone market. All four except Google build some type of recovery capabilities into their devices. For Android, there are add-ons available in the Google Play online store.

But Schneiderman is not satisfied. He said his office is investigating whether the manufacturers -- such as Apple, which advertises its products' "safety and security by design" -- have engaged in deceptive trade practices by not combating the theft problem more forcefully. "I seek to understand why companies that can develop sophisticated handheld electronics and operating systems ... cannot also create technology to render stolen devices inoperable and thereby eliminate the expanding black market on which they are sold," wrote Schneiderman in his letters to the manufacturers.

Wielding both carrot and stick, Schneiderman in his letter suggested that he'll be seeking details of how much each of the four smartphone manufacturers earns from consumers paying to replace products that have been stolen. "I would be especially concerned if device theft accrues to your company's financial benefit through increased sales of replacement devices," he said.

Schneiderman's outreach comes as mobile network operators are in the process of creating a global database for tracking stolen smartphones, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. But some police officials have said that the voluntary database won't do enough to deter smartphone theft.

Violent smartphone and tablet robberies are on the rise. According to the Attorney General's office, comparing all of 2011 to the first nine months of 2012, smartphone thefts in New York City increased by 40%. Such robberies have been dubbed "Apple picking," given thieves' apparent penchant for iOS products. But according to a 2011 New York Police Department study, only 30% of devices stolen from subways and buses were manufactured by Apple.

New York City ranked ninth in a list of the top 10 cities that reported the greatest numbers of 2011 phone thefts, which was compiled by security vendor Lookout Mobile Security. The study found that phone theft was most prevalent in Philadelphia, followed by Seattle and Oakland. The most likely place for a New Yorker to lose his phone was in a fast-food restaurant. By Lookout's estimates, based on its finding that the average consumer loses or misplaces one device per year, stolen cell phones could cost U.S. consumers $30 billion in replacement costs.

Schneiderman's office said that Lookout will be advising the New York state government -- pro bono -- on approaches to combating device theft.