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 U.S. Federal Communications Commission 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.
SLIDESHOW: 20 best iPhone/iPad games so far this year
With the introduction of the database, carriers will be able to block stolen handsets from being used on their networks. Until now, such blocking had targeted the SIM card, so unauthorized calls could not be made on stolen phones, but putting in a new SIM card meant the phone could still be used. That meant a stolen phone could be sold on the second-hand market.
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.
"The goal is to not only protect the consumer by cancelling the service, but by ultimately protecting the consumer by drying up the after market for stolen phones," said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, a wireless industry trade association that has coordinated efforts to introduce the database.
As of Wednesday, carriers AT&T and T-Mobile will offer a joint database, said Guttman-McCabe. The two carriers use the same basic network technology so handsets from one can be easily used on the other. Verizon and Sprint, which use a different network technology, will offer their own databases, he said.
By the end of November next year, the four carriers will combine their databases so that the vast majority of U.S. cellphone users will be covered. Smaller carriers like Nex-Tech and Cellcom are also getting on board the database. There are also plans to link it with an international database maintained by the GSM Association to stop stolen phones being shipped overseas and used on foreign networks.
With the introduction of the database, consumers are being asked to do more to safeguard their phones and data.
"Consumers also play a key role in protecting their information and preventing smartphone theft," the organization said in a statement. "By using passwords or PINs, as well as remote wiping capabilities, consumers can help to dry up the aftermarket for stolen devices."
A lock code on the home screen can make it difficult for thieves to get into menus and reset the phone. The inability to get past a lock screen also makes it difficult for an unsophisticated criminal to sell the phone on the after market.
Consumers will start to see this information pushed from carriers by the end of this year.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org