Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy L. Lanier says Oct. 31 can't come quickly enough, and that's not because she's excited for Halloween.
The end of October is the deadline for some of the country's largest cellphone providers to implement a cross-carrier database that will track stolen phones, preventing them from being used on other wireless networks. It's a plan that's been heralded by law enforcement agencies across the country as a way to combat what many have seen as an explosion in cellphone thefts.
"When the Oct. 31 deadline comes around and the solution by the North American cell carriers goes into place, where they have to blacklist, essentially, the stolen phones, I think that will help significantly," Chief Lanier said during a recent news conference about arrests made in a robbery. "It's not going to stop all robberies. It'll take the motive out of snatching of cellphones, so Oct. 31 can't come fast enough."
Some carriers, including Sprint Nextel and Verizon, previously kept internal blacklists of stolen phones. AT&T also began blocking stolen phones from being reactivated this summer. The cross-carrier database, brokered with help from the Federal Communications Commission, will allow carriers to check the unique identification number assigned to each phone to see if it has been reported stolen before allowing it to be reactivated. For SIM-card-based cellphones — such as AT&T and T-Mobile phones and some international phones — the database will prevent stolen phones from being reactivated even when a new subscriber identification module (SIM) card is installed.
Over the last year in the District, police have lamented an increase in robberies that officials say are fueled by thieves' targeting of cellphones and other handheld electronic devices that can often be easily snatched from someone's hands.
But the robberies have at times been much more serious than simple snatch-and-grabs. A brutal beating near Eastern Market in August left a Capitol Hill man with traumatic brain injuries after three men targeted him for a robbery, making off with his cellphone and a credit card.
As of late last month, robberies overall in the city are up 9 percent this year, driving overall crime up by about 2 percent, according to Chief Lanier.
The release of new technology on the market, such as the Sept. 21 release of the iPhone 5, only stokes those trends.
"We'll see a spike as soon as it comes out," Chief Lanier predicted in August.
In Alexandria, thieves struck the same day the new phone model was released, stealing 16 iPhone 5s from a used car dealership. Around closing time two gunmen held up the business, taking the new phones and cash, said Alexandria Police Department spokeswoman Ashley Hildebrandt. It was unclear why the dealership had so many phones or if the phones belonged to employees.
Police arrested 23-year-old Robert Butler of Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1 and charged him with robbery and the use of a firearm in commission of a felony in connection with the incident, said Alexandria police spokesman Jody Donaldson. Police are continuing to search for the others believed to be involved.
In quarterly updates provided to trade group The Wireless Association, phone carriers indicated they expect to be able to meet the Oct. 31 deadline.
A second database that would similarly block stolen phones on Long Term Evolution networks is expected to be rolled out by November 2013.
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