- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and police chiefs from the District, Philadelphia and New York City announced a nationwide strategy on Tuesday to make stolen smartphones “as worthless as an empty wallet.”

Major phone carriers representing about 90 percent of U.S. consumers have agreed to develop and implement databases that “blacklist” electronic devices from service after they are reported stolen, industry officials said.

The effort, which will be rolled out by the Federal Communications Commission through 2013, arrives after months of pressure from police chiefs who have seen a drastic uptick in the number of smartphone robberies.

“I think this is a big deal,” D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, said. “It will deflate the economic value of robbery.”

Under the program, a customer can report a stolen phone to his or her carrier. The carrier will load a unique identification number for the phone into a database, which will be checked by other carriers to see if the device is blacklisted.

“If it is, it will be denied service,” Chris Guttman-McCabe, a vice president at the CTIA-The Wireless Association.

The carrier databases eventually will “all be able to talk to each other,” before expanding the database internationally to include markets in numerous countries, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

The system should be in place on individual carriers within six months, ahead of an 18-month deadline for universal databases across carriers. Smartphone makers are also directing consumers to applications that allow them to remotely lock or erase their phones.

Efforts to combat smartphone robbery in the District and other major cities have grown rapidly since 2009, with police employing sting operations to crack down on the resale market and encouraging consumers to be vigilant, Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said.

Cellphones were taken in 38 percent of all robberies in the District in 2011, or more than double the proportion in 2007, according to Mr. Gray’s office.

Mr. Gray signaled his interest in remotely shutting down stolen smartphones during his State of the District Address in February, as public awareness and concern about the problem grew amid a spike in robberies.

“Frankly with the bust that we did back in March and the increase in efforts on this, robberies are now down,” Mr. Gray said, referring to a raid last month on 13 establishments believed to be trafficking in stolen goods such as smartphones.

University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell and Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn also touted the effort on Tuesday, hoping to thwart smartphone robberies in their jurisdictions that can involve violent assaults and threats at gunpoint.

“This is no small crime,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, a former police chief in the District. “This is something that is very, very serious.”

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said cellphone-related incidents accounted for about 8 percent of his city’s robberies and grand larcenies about 10 years ago. Today, “it’s over 40 percent.”

“Now carriers, with the push of a button, will be able to take highly prized stolen instruments and turn them into worthless pieces of plastic,” he said. “It’s like draining the swamp to fight malaria. What we are doing is drying up the market for stolen cellphones and other types of devices.”

He said the effort will have a significant impact, “as it has in Europe where they put this solution in place several years ago.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, New York Democrat, said smartphones are “catnip for criminals.” He plans to introduce legislation on Capitol Hill that makes it a federal crime to tamper with identifying numbers on cellphones, similar to the prohibition on modifications to VIN numbers on motor vehicles.

The cooperation of major carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile signaled a turnabout of sorts, after recent national news stories suggested the industry was reluctant to cooperate with the effort.

“It takes resources, energy to do this,” Mr. Genachowski said.

But in talks with industry officials, the FCC pointed to success the program has had overseas.

“So the burden is on you to say why we can’t do it,” he said of the discussions. “And they said, ‘You know what, we can do it here.’ “

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