Fighting cellphone theft

Posted: May 12, 2014

"Ten thousand thousand fruit to touch," as Robert Frost puts it in "After Apple-Picking." He was talking about apples. But Apple-picking is now slang for the theft of one of the most lucrative things you can steal: a cellphone. And Philadelphia, according to the AAA, is the number-one town in the United States for Apple-picking.

Now, after industrial dickering and resistance, consumers may finally get some control of the situation. At issue is the so-called kill switch, a way for owners of stolen or lost mobile devices to lock them and/or erase info on them remotely.

Law enforcement and states' attorneys general are pushing for it. On Thursday, the California Senate passed a bill to mandate it. And industry, after some moaning, seems ready to go along: In April, major phonemakers and wireless carriers pledged, voluntarily and toothlessly, to put kill-switch software in all their mobile products as of July 2015 . . . 4 million stolen smartphones from now.

"There is a global underground market for smartphones in the U.S., and they are trafficked just like anything else," says Carolyn E. Myers, assistant press secretary for Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane. "Street-level thieves feed the market, and the robberies often turn violent."

An estimated 3.1 million mobile devices are swiped yearly nationwide, up to 40 percent of all thefts in major U.S. cities, according to an FCC report last year. One in 10 cellphone owners has had one lost or stolen.

Nor does it stay at home. "Mobile devices that are reported stolen in the United States and no longer able to access domestic cell networks," Myers says, "can be reactivated to work in foreign countries. In Hong Kong, for example, iPhones are worth upward of $2,000 apiece."

Needed: a kill switch. If your phone is filched or missing, you call a special number, and the phone is made null, or "bricked," removing, as Myers says, "the economic value and helping dry up secondary markets, but most importantly, reducing violent robberies."

Philly's status as cellphone theft capital derives partly from thefts on SEPTA. Sixty-six percent of all violent or property crimes in 2013 on SEPTA, 307 incidents in all, involved cellphones. (Total violent/property crimes were down, though, and that's a good thing.)

That can be expensive - consumers pay providers $30 billion a year to reactivate or replace stolen or lost phones or cell service - and dangerous. In April 2013, a man was shot in Society Hill when he chased cellphone thieves. In May 2013, thieves went on a wallet-and-cellphone rampage in University City, stealing from 11 victims, some at gunpoint. High-profile murders include that of a chef at the restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, or of Megan Boken of St. Louis, murdered in her car.

Some phones do or could have kill switches. As of September, Apple's most recent operating system, iOS 7, included something called Activation Lock. But it's not built-in; you have to opt in. Samsung came out with a "reactivation lock" in April. Cellular networks can track missing phones via IMEI number (a unique identifier found in various places on various phones) and disable them, at least on that network. The owner has to call the network and report the theft and IMEI number. Only recently have companies shared IMEI lists with law enforcement.

A group of state attorneys general, including Kane, signed on last year to an initiative called Secure Our Smartphones (SOS), pressing manufacturers to install kill-switch software. Industry balked at any third-party control over phones. Some cynics suggested that the carriers, in particular, were in mourning over that $30 billion in replacement and reactivation fees.

But now - after a well-publicized spike in cellphone-related crime in 2013, and the high-profile SOS campaign - big phonemakers like Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft, and carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular, are pledging up. The system, said to be totally reversible, will allow users to lock devices and wipe contacts and personal info.

There are, to be sure, legitimate concerns. Could phones get accidentally bricked? Couldn't Big Government, or industry, interfere with/shut down private phones remotely? Couldn't hackers/terrorists/idiots find ways to locate, brick, or bollix huge numbers of phones?

Probably. And then we'll have to find better safeguards. Until July 2015, meanwhile, we should get better at hiding our apples. Many of us can say, with Frost: "I have had too much / Of apple-picking."


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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