FCC, Wireless Carriers Will Create National Database To Fight Smartphone, Tablet Thefts

PHOTO: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski will unveil new initiatives to protect consumers and curb smartphone thefts, April 10, 2012.PlayRoll Call/Getty Images
WATCH Cell Phone Database Would Help Prevent Theft

The burgeoning market for stolen smart phones and tablet devices is the target of a new partnership between the FCC, law enforcement and wireless carriers, who announced today a plan to create a national database that would render the stolen devices worthless.

During the next six months, the nation's top wireless carriers will work to create databases of stolen devices. The unique identifying number on each stolen device will be entered into a database that will prevent thieves from being able to reactivate the smartphones and tablets on other carriers. The FCC expects the databases will be integrated within the next 18 months, and ultimately hopes to create an international database to quash the secondary market.

"If the industry can help dry up the demand, we will take the profit motive away from the criminals," said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, a vice president at CTIA, a wireless trade group.

A decade ago, cellular devices accounted for 8 percent of thefts in large cities. They now account for more than 40 percent of thefts, according to the FCC.

During those 10 years, what was first petty theft has since become a much larger issue, jeopardizing the personal information of users who bank, pay bills and store other sensitive data on their devices.

"We're sending a message to consumers we've got your back and a message to criminals we're cracking down on the resale market," FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said today.

The chairman said he will hold wireless carriers accountable for meeting certain benchmarks. Aside from the database, the goals will include notifying and prompting consumers of how they can lock their phones with passwords, educating consumers on how they can locate and wipe their phones using applications and measures that can be taken to deter theft.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he hopes those measures, coupled with legislation he is introducing, "will make a stolen cellphone as worthless as an empty wallet."

The senator's legislation would make altering the unique identification numbers on cell phones a federal crime, punishable with up to five years in prison, similar to the law that was passed criminalizing the tampering of vehicle identification numbers.

"It worked for the VIN numbers and it will work for the cell phone ID numbers," Schumer said.

The wireless industry's representative, Guttman-McCabe, declined to discuss the cost to the industry. Instead, he called the move a "good corporate citizen effort" and stressed it was about "safety and security".

The CTIA will submit its first quarterly report to the FCC on June 30, 2012 and will publish updates on its website.