A plan to stop the rise in stolen cell phones

Mitchell Hartman Apr 10, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: This has happened to you, right? You can’t find your cell phone, you look everywhere and then you get lucky. It rings from under a pile of laundry or inside the refrigerator or wherever.

Sometimes, though — and increasingly this is what happens — it doesn’t ring. ‘Cause it’s gone. Stolen.

Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman reports help may be on the way.

Mitchell Hartman: In Washington today, wireless carriers, big-city police chiefs and the FCC announced a new national database for stolen cell phones. In essence: a list of the serial numbers of every phone reported ‘missing-and-presumed-pilfered.’

The phone companies will use the list to block a thief, or anyone they sell your stolen phone to, from reactivating it. Chris Guttman-McCabe of the Wireless Trade Association.

Chris Guttman-McCabe: What this effort will do is dry up the value of those phones, and really dry up the aftermarket, because you’re taking away the profit motive from the criminals if they can’t reactivate them.

And hitting the criminals’ bottom line is crucial. Used iPhones can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay or Craigslist. Cell phone thefts are way up across the country.

Chester Wisniewski of computer security firm Sophos says the new anti-theft policies could encourage thieves to go after the data on your mobile phone instead.

Chester Wisniewski: If we take the dollar value away from stealing the phone and being able to sell it, you know, will that then shift to ‘how valuable is your Facebook identity, how valuable is your Bank of America app that automatically logs in from your phone?’ We’re not really seeing a market in that today, but that might change.

Wisniewski says you can make it harder for crooks to get that data by password-protecting your mobile devices. Also, installing apps that let you lock, locate, and wipe your phone clean of data — after it goes missing.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

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