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Cellphones Government Crime United States Wireless Networking Your Rights Online

Stolen Cellphone Databases Switched On In US 165

alphadogg writes "U.S. cellphone carriers took a major step on Wednesday toward curbing the rising number of smartphone thefts with the introduction of databases that will block stolen phones from being used on domestic networks. The initiative got its start earlier this year when the FCC and police chiefs from major cities asked the cellular carriers for assistance in battling the surging number of smartphone thefts. In New York, more than 40 percent of all robberies involve cellphones and in Washington, D.C., cellphone thefts accounted for 38 percent of all robberies in 2011."
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Stolen Cellphone Databases Switched On In US

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  • Welcome (Score:5, Informative)

    by ledow ( 319597 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @03:55PM (#41834239) Homepage

    Welcome to the 21st Century.

    The EU has had this for over a decade.

    • So has Verizon Wireless.

      Doesn't prevent someone from flashing new software and using it on another carrier, but VZW uses CDMA. That limits your options to Sprint, Cricket, and a handful of regional carriers.

      • You could always flash it with a good ESN you got from some other phone -- perhaps an irreparably broken one or an old phone of a different model. There is software that'll do it. That'll get you back on VZW / Sprint, or wherever the phone came from and is likely a lot easier than the full flashing process you're talking about. Look on craigslist. There are plenty of "Bad ESN" phones being sold out there, especially with cracked screens (or badly repaired ones). I'm willing to bet most thieves don't as
        • by jhoegl ( 638955 )
          Regardless, what if someone typos your ESN over another. How does one prove they should not be on the list?
          • Re:Welcome (Score:4, Insightful)

            by dougmc ( 70836 ) <> on Thursday November 01, 2012 @12:18AM (#41838651) Homepage

            Regardless, what if someone typos your ESN over another. How does one prove they should not be on the list?

            Simply calling the carrier and telling them it's your phone and you did not steal it would probably suffice.

            If you bought it on craigslist or ebay, then it probably is stolen, and maybe the police will take it off your hands and return it to the rightful owner.

            If you bought it new from the carrier and somebody just fat-fingered the ESN, you'll just show them the receipt (or your carrier will provide proof) that you did buy it and it's not stolen and they'll fix it. It may be that only phones purchased new from the carriers will be so entered anyways, so they're not likely to make such mistakes (as they'll have a record of exactly what phone you bought and have been using.)

            Certainly, I would not expect thieves and people who know they have stolen phones to contact the carriers about their phones being disabled (as it's a good way to go to jail), so anybody who contacts them and says the phone wasn't stolen probably could be reasonably trusted. The only exceptions will be people who bought used phones -- and in that case, the serial numbers and ESNs could be verified and if it's the stolen phone, return it, and if not, fix the database.

      • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

        I thought Verizon only used that list for people who did not pay their bill?

        I don't think they use it for stolen phones.

      • Certainly in the UK, it is a common database used by all 4/5[*] carriers, and I believe the database is shared with other countries around the world.

        [*] Orange and T-Mobile are now the same company. I'm not sure if they have fully merged their networks yet, if not, they plan to very shortly.

    • Not EU, UK maybe.

    • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

      Welcome to the United States. If it inconveniences Corporate America, it's bad for America.

    • Hell, welcome to the 20th century. Some countries had IMEI blocking across GSM networks in the 90s...

  • The cellphone is less of the cost than the service.

    • Re:Why (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ArcherB ( 796902 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @03:57PM (#41834295) Journal

      The cellphone is less of the cost than the service.

      Because they can sell the phone at just below "off contract" prices. Remember, the cost of cell phones if you purchase them outright is about 2-3x what it is if you buy them on contract. If you are on contract and lose your phone, the replacement is full price. Or, people can buy these phones and use them on non-contract networks that tend to be cheaper since they usually don't offer phone discounts.

      • the cost of cell phones if you purchase them outright is about 2-3x what it is if you buy them on contract

        Nonsense. The cost of a cell phone you buy on contract is usually more, as you repay the subsidy discount and then some in the service fees over the duration of the contract. Losing your phone only means they get to bone you harder.

        • You are obviously unfamiliar with the American mobile market. Other than T-Mobile, none of the majors offer a discount on monthly service if you bring your own phone. Taking the subsidized handset is the logical choice.
    • Re:Why (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Skynyrd ( 25155 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:30PM (#41834729) Homepage

      I sold an iPhone 3s for $175 on eBay, just after the 4s came out. I was due for an upgrade, so I sold my old phone.

      I would get the same $$ if I stole yours and sold it. The cost of the service is irrelevant the the thief, as long as he can get good money for a stolen phone.

    • Not really - the service includes a large premium used to amortise the cost of the handset. This becomes quite plain when you look at the comparative costs of the handsets and service in other countries where people tend to buy phones outright/don't use contracts/BYO phone.

      For instance, an iPhone or higher-end Android device costs typically $500-$1000 outright in most countries. A lot of people buy them outright then put them on a relatively cheap plan (e.g. $15 a month). Losing the handset is a big deal in

  • Great! Until.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @03:58PM (#41834301)

    Carriers decide to start using the exact same technology to block users from re-selling used phones.

    • by localman57 ( 1340533 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:33PM (#41834755)
      What do they care? They'd rather you bring in your old phone than buy a new one, because they subsidize the cost of the new phone. A carrier's favorite customer is the one who's still using his original iPhone 1. Still paying for a data plan, using relatively small amounts of data, and they paid off the subsidy a long time ago.
      • They do care (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Powercntrl ( 458442 )

        Carriers want you to sign a new two-year contract. They also aren't entirely thrilled that you can get an inexpensive second-hand phone and activate it on a prepaid plan. T-Mobile already does block a phone's IMEI if the the original owner abandoned their account with an unpaid balance (a matter that should be left to collection agencies, not handled by blacklisting a phone). Worse, T-Mobile is known to block a phone after it's already been sold and is in use by a new owner who had no way of knowing the

  • by mfh ( 56 )

    Yes, hi this is Jonny Law. You can pull over with your hands-free up!

  • ebay should join in, since most such phones are probably sold through ebay. They should ask sellers to type in the phone number and block the sale in phone is in the database.
  • by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:00PM (#41834363)
    And not, say, keep them working and use the traces to eventually find the folks who have them? That would seem much more sensible.
    • Re:Why block them? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by QuantumRiff ( 120817 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:07PM (#41834449)

      That is a ton of "man hours" for the police to track someone down for stealing a $100 device. In most states, they can't prove the current holder of the phone stole it, so the best they can do is confiscate the stolen goods. By making them not work at all, it should make the market for stolen phones dry up..

      • Re:Why block them? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Firehed ( 942385 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:14PM (#41834527) Homepage

        Unsubsidized smartphones easily cost $600+, which constitutes grand larceny (often a felony) in most states.

        I agree that the current holder of the device is probably not the person who stole it, but over a few data points it probably wouldn't be terribly difficult (yet) to track it back to the original thief, what with everything being location-aware these days. That said, you're right - if we just shut the devices off immediately, the desire to steal phones should drop to nearly zero overnight.

        • 1. The IMEI can be changed
          2. Blocked phones can be exported.

          Europe has a brisk trade in phones that are country-blocked, but will work anywhere else in the world.

    • by afidel ( 530433 )

      Because the person who has the phone while it's on may not be the party that took it? Yeah you can try to pop them for receiving stolen property, but that requires proving intent which can be difficult and doesn't stop the theft from happening. Now if you take away the profit motive the theft is much less likely to occur.

    • Re:Why block them? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by mrquagmire ( 2326560 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:16PM (#41834555)
      Do you really think cops give two sh*ts about a stolen cell phone? Or stolen anything for that matter? Have you ever had anything stolen? Unless the thief literally falls into their laps, I guarantee they're not going to do anything about it.
      • by vlm ( 69642 )

        Do you really think cops give two sh*ts about a stolen cell phone? Or stolen anything for that matter? Have you ever had anything stolen? Unless the thief literally falls into their laps, I guarantee they're not going to do anything about it.

        It depends how wealthy the location is. Think of minor fender bender parking lot-style car accidents. I or my family members have had the following experiences in the last decade:

        Very well off "law and order republicans" suburban area: Cop dispatched, takes pics and makes report onsite before we're allowed to leave. Pulls up with lights on but at least left the siren off. Take statement from both parties, breathalyzer both parties (even though both obviously 0.0%) etc.

        So so literally borderline area:

        • Let say that my parents and I live in a "fancy neighborhood", not gated, it's really San Diego ( but like Dr. Suess' moniker for where he lived) they call it La Jolla instead of San Diego. Anyway, one evening we got a bunch of rowdy teens from a different high-school banging on the door shouting at my parents to return their phone. We ended up calling the police and got an amazing fast response with 2 squad cars and three officers. It turns out that the kid's phone was stolen and they'd tracked it with t
      • Suburban law enforcement is a whole different creature from urban law enforcement. A friend threw a party in the Burbs years ago and a neighbor complained about the noise. Three cop cars showed up.

        My GF managed a downtown chain store and cops could hardly be bothered to come pick up the shoplifters they caught. And, even if they did show up for them, they'd often be right back on the street and sometimes come BACK to the store within days to shoplift AGAIN!

    • Well if you block them and word gets around that stolen cell phones are useless, people stop stealing cell phones and police won't have to track down who has your phone now. Blocking stolen phones addresses the problem (phones are valuable to steal). Tracking down phone thieves merely addresses the symptom.
  • 38% of crime (Score:4, Interesting)

    by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:00PM (#41834365)

    What I don't understand is why that much crime is going uninvestigated. Why aren't there dedicated law enforcement units working in major metropolitan areas to recover these phones? In most jurisdictions, they are valuable enough to qualify the theft as grand larceny. What's more, each cell phone has a built-in tracking device accurate to within a few meters, and have microphones and cameras built in! These aren't exactly difficult crimes to solve.

    • by tiberus ( 258517 )

      What I don't understand is why that much crime is going uninvestigated.

      It would depend on your definition of investigated for one, if the cops know about it, there is at least a record/report and the cop asked you some questions...

      The other issue, it that most cell phone thefts are likely considered petty theft (which is why the theft of my iPods will never be investigated) and they are not likely to dust for fingerprints or do other than take a report and update their stats for a petty theft.

    • Re:38% of crime (Score:5, Informative)

      by Psyborgue ( 699890 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:24PM (#41834657) Homepage Journal
      They are. It takes time to catch the small fish and work your way all the way to the top. A huge cell phone theft ring was broken up in the DC area last year. YMMV but some police jurisdictions are actually trying to combat this.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    They already blacklist imei but it's only on a per carrier basis which is obviously easy to get around simply by using a different carrier with the blacklisted phone. Having a global blacklist database is definitely a great improvement. The only two question is, will phone re-sellers also use the blacklist (like many prepaid companies that rely on the major companies network) and when can we have a global database to prevent sales to out of the country as well.

  • by stephanruby ( 542433 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:15PM (#41834547)

    The new database blocks the IMEI number, a unique identification number in the cellphone akin to a VIN (vehicle identification number) in a car. The ID number remains with the cellphone no matter what SIM card is used.

    10% of IMEI numbers are not unique [] according to British Telecom. That being said in the UK at least, if your phone gets blocked by accident, there is a procedure to get it unblocked - so all is not lost for you.

  • This is great and has been too long in coming, I'd guess most of the challenges were administrative vs. technical.

    What's next? How about iPods?

    • iPods are already blocked from cellphone networks through other means.
      • How exactly are stolen iPod touch products blocked from tethering to a non-stolen phone?
        • an iPod by itself is blocked due to lack of a radio. a blocked iPhone could just as easily tether to a non-stolen phone as an iPod can (i don't actually know if an iPhone can, but an Android phone certainly can.)
  • ... whose phone gets on this list by accident. Suddenly a good customer becomes a dirty criminal. I'm sure there will be no way to rectify the mistake.

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Wednesday October 31, 2012 @04:47PM (#41834931) Homepage

    Both android and iphone have the ability to be "rendered useless" by the OS maker. let me be able to set a "stolen flag" that locks the phone in a states that says "STOLEN PROPERTY CALL 1-800-XXX-XXXX to report and return" that cant be easily bypassed. I.E. restoring the iphone will not disable it, etc... this will make the street value of any stolen smartphone $0.00 instantly. THAT will fix the problem and apple could put that in place with a trivial amount of coding as they already have "find my iphone" as a part of the OS. Android on the other hand will take some work as it lacks that feature.

    The phone OS makers refuse to put a simple system like this in place because stolen phones make them money.

    • How can the OS makers add this feature if I can reflash the entire phone? The phone makers need to add a non-erasable block of flash or some kind of physical fuse embedded in a core part of the phone.

      The resale value will always be a significant portion of the value of a replacement screen/anything except the part that has been disabled
  • Thought someone had stolen some "cellphone databases", whatever those were, and had just gotten around to switching on the databases they'd stolen. Clicked because I was curious what a "cellphone database" was.

  • If these phone really are stolen, I see no problem if we could make them explode when turned on by the thief, fence or fence customer... When you buy a hot phone, expect to loose your hand, just like what would happen to thieves in Islamic countries...

"So why don't you make like a tree, and get outta here." -- Biff in "Back to the Future"