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US Carriers Finally Doing Something About Cellphone Theft 155

New submitter zarmanto writes "In a move that is so long overdue that it boggles the mind, the FCC and the four largest cellular providers in the U.S. state that they will be joining forces to combat cell phone theft. From the article: 'Over the next six months, each of the four operators is expected to put in place a program to disable phones reported as stolen and within 18 months the FCC plans to help merge them into a central database in order to prevent a phone from being used on another carrier's network.'"
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US Carriers Finally Doing Something About Cellphone Theft

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  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:08PM (#39633293)
    Report your friends phone as stolen! Hilarity ensues.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:10PM (#39633347)

      Sadly, I expect this will become one of the many popular ways to upset an ex-spouse

      • Maybe they could make it harder than just a phone call. Maybe you'd have to go to a phone store with some ID or something.

        Gee, I sure hope they've thought of that...

        • More likely it'll be used as a way to get out of contracts.

          Don't have the $$$$$ for going over your minutes/data/text?
          Don't want to pay a $$$$$ early termination fee?
          "OMG My phone was stolen! I didn't download XYZ apps! I didn't use XX gigabytes of data! I didn't send XXXXX txt messages or make XXXXXX phone calls!"
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Filing a police report is usually required. Filing a false police report includes some pretty hefty penalties. A prank is probably not worth it.

      • by vlm ( 69642 )

        Or an ex-employer. "turn in your phone to the security guard on the way out the door". Well...

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Sadly, I expect this will become one of the many popular ways to isolate an ex-spouse from communication to commit an act of violence against them.


    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jxander ( 2605655 )

      Part of me hopes, sincerely, that a process is put in place to prevent this type of action.

      But in reality, I know that such a process will not exist until AFTER a couple million phones get bricked by pranksters, jilted lovers, or whatever black hat group decides to get some lulz.

    • by darjen ( 879890 )

      What's to stop people from selling their phone, reporting it stolen, then getting it back? I guess you will have to ask for a signed receipt?

      • The system would have to know you are the owner in the first place, so however it was transferred from the retailer to you, you would transfer it to the new owner.

        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          If you're with one of the 4 carriers you're going to be on a contract, so they will know who you are. It won't work with my company, BOOST, even though Sprint owns BOOST. Any phone you get a card at the convinience store for will keep working after it gets ripped off.

          • Any phone you get a card at the convinience store for will keep working after it gets ripped off.

            Until the pre-paid minutes run out.

            • by vlm ( 69642 )

              You can top off a stolen prepay phone using a prepay cash card.

              The only certain way to kill a prepay phone is to port the number to a new phone / new provider. That'll zap it for sure on the old phone.

          • And is your phone the type of phone somebody might want to steal?

            • Most stolen phones are not stolen for the phone itself, they are stolen for the already-paid-for plan by people who run drugs/etc. The only thing more anonymous than a pre-paid cellphone is a STOLEN pre-paid cellphone!
            • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

              Not since I broke it, but it's a Motorola with a good camera/video, qwerty, email, internet, text, voice commans (really annoying feature BTW)... yep, if it wasn't broken, someone would want to steal it.

      • by icebike ( 68054 ) *

        They guy bringing it back to you for a refund is likely to be carrying a 2x4.

        Nothing in the story said the carriers are going to recover the phones. They are just going to disable them so there is no incentive to steal them or sell them and report them stolen. You aren't going to get it back.

        • by Ihmhi ( 1206036 )

          I give it three months at most before a "de-bricker" tool and instructions on how to get around such disabling are online.

          • Except the phone won't be dissabled or bricked, carriers will just refuse to activate the phone on their network.
            • Yes, but to do that they rely on the phone's built-in IMEI [] code.

              Since many manufacturer have the IMEI in the firmware rather than a hardware ROM for cost reasons (including JesusPhone inc.), it is rather easy to change it, and rebadge the phone... Just google for "imei changer".

      • They've had this system in the UK for about 10 years now. People do sometimes sell their phone on ebay and report it as stolen. What happens is that once the new owner shows the evidence that they bought it on ebay, the seller gets prosecuted for insurance fraud.

      • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

        What's to stop people from selling absolutely anything, reporting it stolen and then getting it back. Well, it's all down to the getting it back part. To get it back, they have to get it back from someone. This person is commonly arrested and tried in court and a penalty applied. During this process they will attempt to prove that they did in fact pay you for the phone and that you criminal in place false charges against them.

        So basically getting caught lying and paying a major fine or going to jail or b

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Presumably a police report will be required.

    • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:20PM (#39633513)
      While there is always room for abuse. However for the most part I see this a good thing. You steel a cell phone, it won't work. People will be no longer interesting in buying hot cellphones. So robbers will stop stealing cellphones. Of course I still like the find my phone features where we can get cops to raid them after they take your phone.
      • by tripleevenfall ( 1990004 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:24PM (#39633599)

        It's no wonder the carriers didn't want to do anything to suppress phone theft: if your phone is stolen, you're back at the AT&T store, buying a new phone at full unsubsidized price.

        Why would a carrier want to stop that?

        • by Lashat ( 1041424 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:46PM (#39633975)

          I was looking for this post so I could avoid repeating it.

          I want to add another wrinkle. Not only does AT&T sell you a full priced replacement phone AND a new lost/stolen insurance policy, they also make money from the new owner of your old phone as AT&T will likely connect their new service.

          • by JazzLad ( 935151 )
            Perhaps with GSM systems, but CDMA (VZW, Sprint) locks the ESN so that it can't be used on their system (and neither of them will use a phone from the other system). This is one of the reasons Cricket Wireless is so popular, it is a haven for stolen CDMA phones.
        • by neo8750 ( 566137 )
          This being true but you can always cancel your contract. Its the one loophole. Report phone as stolen tell the provider you refuse to take the cheap ass replacement phone and refuse to pay full price for a replacement. once contract is void goto another provider get the deal they have in place. However if its a fancy dancy high end phone you wont get a discount so it is what it is.
          • You can cancel your contract and incur an early termination fee, which is calibrated to be just enough to make it not worth paying (just below the cost of a new phone).

          • No, that's not a loop hole. Your contract is for the service. You can cancel, but you will still get hit with the early termination fee. Stolen phone will not change anything.
      • by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:35PM (#39633815) Journal

        Of course I still like the find my phone features where we can get cops to raid them after they take your phone.

        This assumes that the cops actually care about 'small' crimes like stolen cell phones.
        Spoiler Alert: There are far too many police forces who wouldn't arrest someone even if you gift wrapped the case for them.

        • This assumes that the cops actually care about 'small' crimes like stolen cell phones.

          Tell them you think it was stolen by terrorists or child pornographers ... those two seem to get you the full attention of law enforcement nowadays.

        • This assumes that the cops actually care about 'small' crimes like stolen cell phones.

          One of the networks ran a story about this problem; the major issue cited wasn't the theft itself (although that in itself is a couple hundred bucks of merchandise lost to the owner), but the ancillary violence and battery that goes along with the thefts/muggings that are too often associated with these crimes.

          It's one thing to have your phone scooped from a table while you're in the can; it's another to be kicked and beaten to within an inch of your life for it.

    • by icebike ( 68054 ) * on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:22PM (#39633565)

      This just doesn't happen. Look, people, the vast majority of carriers in the world already to this, and they have no such problem.

      There are checks and balances. Some require a police report, others simply require you to appear in person, show your ID and match it to your account credentials.

      Contrary to popular opinion, this scheme wasn't dreamed up by 7th graders, Its built into the GSM spec and widely used.

      • Its built into the GSM spec and widely used.

        You must be new here. Carrier's #1 and #3 (by subscribership) are not using GSM at all...

        • by upside ( 574799 )

          It might originate from GSM but isn't unique to GSM.

          The International Mobile Equipment Identity or IMEI (/ami/) is a number, usually unique,[1][2] to identify GSM, WCDMA, and iDEN mobile phones, as well as some satellite phones.


          • by B1 ( 86803 )

            WCDMA, and iDEN are basically variations of GSM. Traditional GSM phones run on a TDMA air interface... WCDMA is the use of a CDMA air interface to provide GSM service. It is *not* the same thing as CDMA2000, which is traditionally called "CDMA" here.


            The GSM standards define a database called the Equipment Identity Register (EIR), which is what carriers would use to blacklist stolen equipment. GSM network elements already know how to query an EIR to see if a ha

            • by icebike ( 68054 ) *

              But since all the CDMA carriers are adopting LTE, which pretty much included GSM, won't this problem be solved for the newer LTE phones anyway?

              Just askin, I have no real knowledge on this point.

              • by B1 ( 86803 )

                To be honest, I'm not sure how the LTE side works, or how closely it's integrated with the legacy CDMA2000 network (if at all)... if this means the carriers are implementing an EIR as part of their LTE rollouts, then yes, the newer LTE devices would be covered.

                Older CDMA2000 subscribers wouldn't be covered (and right now, there are still millions of those, especially in areas where LTE is not yet available).

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:25PM (#39633631)

      Report your friends phone as stolen! Hilarity ensues.

      I find it funny that i see this every time, this is mentioned. In the UK this has been available for as long as i have been using some form of mobile phone (about 10 years). And when you block a phone here you don't use the phone number its the IMEI Number that belongs to your handset...which is a lot harder to just get off your friend and then have blocked.

      Also in this country on top of that if its a contract phone, at least on the network im on (T-mobile), i had to do the same authentication that you normally have to perform to get into your account. This is also reversible if you are on contract if you recover the phone it can be unblocked, but only by the account holder.

      • by icebike ( 68054 ) *

        this is mentioned. In the UK this has been available for as long as i have been using some form of mobile phone

        Perhaps you can shed some light on the degree to which this helps prevent phone theft in the UK.

        The BBC seems to think [] the problem of stolen phones is still rampant.

        • I am not saying phones don't still get stolen, but before this was brought in, there were regular stories in the UK of teenagers being killed for their phones, and people on push bikes snatching phones from pedestrians (happened to a friend of mine). This sort of thing stopped fairly abruptly.

          Nowadays, if you "find" a phone in the UK, it is of no use, unless you plan to send it to a third world country (which presumably has included the USA until now). I am fairly sure the "blocking" covers the whole of E

    • Except for the filing a false report charge...
    • by mark-t ( 151149 )
      There are standard identity checks that can get performed, even over the phone. Although it's not impossible that a person sufficiently close to you would know all of that information as well, presumably if they are that close to you, they aren't going to want to jerk you around and cost you any real money that you can't afford.
    • by Artraze ( 600366 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:35PM (#39633821)

      Just like when you report your (friend's?) car as stolen when it's not? Is it hilarious before or after you're arrested for filing a false report?

      Just as a car has a serial number identifying it (VIN) that is registered with the current owner, the cell phones have a number (IMEI) that identify it which can be linked to an account owner. They would simply check the database and confirm that the phone is running on the proper account.

      The trouble is that cars have very specific rules regarding their sales which handle re-registering with the new owner. This proposal, however, doesn't seem to cover transferring ownership in the database, so if your friend bought the phone secondhand, then there could, indeed, be trouble.

    • Just as fun as reporting their car stolen or that you saw an armed man breaking into their house or reporting a crack house at their address.

      You end up getting charged filing those false police reports, wasting police time, perjury, lieing to the police, or whatever you jurisdiction likes to stick on such cases.

      And of course if you have all the details required to tell the phone company such a thing you have all the details required to cancel their service which would seem just an simple a way to go to jail

    • I would hope they would require at least an official report of the theft, i.e. a police report, not to mention have some way of contesting it by emailing a copy of your photo ID or something.

      I would hope. Based on my experiences with a few of the major carriers here in the U.S., I'm not going to waste time hoping for a system that either makes sense or is effective in almost any way.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Isn't it a bit overkill to use the USS Nimitz to do something about cellphone theft?

    • You're right. I'm glad the US is always restrained in their use of force.
    • That's exactly what I thought. Kinda like "you want to pwn my phone there, Ahmadinejad? We got something for that.."

      (Nimitz to an F-18): Burly brawler, this is flaming parrot.. mission is a go.
  • The long-overdue part is that the carriers will share this data so that one phone can't simply be switched to a different network (they have all already done this for their in-network phone database. However, given that most phones are only going to work when operating on the originally designed network anyway (given the patchwork of different standards and frequencies in use among the carriers) how many phone thefts is this really going to affect?

    • by b0bby ( 201198 )

      If you search for "Bad ESN" on ebay you'll see tons being sold; I imagine that lots of them are Verizon being flashed to Sprint, or vice versa as you say. The numbers to me seem high enough that it's worth shutting down.

  • Why 18 months? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by icebike ( 68054 ) * on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:17PM (#39633479)

    Long overdue, this technology has proven to reduce phone theft in places like Australia. Getting mugged for your phone [] is rapidly becoming very common in the US. There is a switch in every GSM system database designed for precisely this purpose. Its in the GSM specs. All these carriers are running the same call connection software. (Most of them are too clueless to have developed their own).

    Why not turn it on WITHIN carriers in 45 days flat, and between carriers within 90 days? Some say there is money to be made by selling you a new phone, and the carriers were unwilling to forego that revenue stream. The thief (or the people who buy from the thieves) have to sign up for service, but they won't be buying any new phone with that service. Many also suggest that a good portion of the non-contract market is using stolen phones.

    But turning this on is not hard. Carriers have been dragging their feet on this for decades.

    The tinfoil hat in me expects the carriers to turn this into another way to make money, if not by charging a fee, then by using it as an excuse to not accept phones purchased elsewhere, or by insistin you bring your phone in for them to record the IMEI, and charging a fee to record it.

    • Re:Why 18 months? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jomegat ( 706411 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:24PM (#39633621)
      The tinfoil hat in me fully expects them to use this to kill the used phone market, jail breaking, and any number of other things that are consumer-unfriendly. "Oh, you lost your phone and don't qualify for a new free one yet? Sorry, you can't buy a used one from your bud. You have to buy a new one from VZW/ATT/etc." This is a solution rife with problems for the consumer.
    • by Ihmhi ( 1206036 )

      I lost my T-Mobile phone. Called to report it lost and said it was likely not to be recovered. They disabled the phone.

      About 4 months later, we're hit with a $200+ bill for that number alone. Turns out they reactivate a lost phone as a "courtesy" for... some reason. Suffice to say we disputed the charges and they dropped the issue. Then, we dropped T-Mobile.

  • by AnalogDiehard ( 199128 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:40PM (#39633895)
    For years, companies have been remotely bricking mobile devices that have been hacked. Why didn't these idiots do the same for devices that were reported stolen?!?
    • Because the customer who lost the phone was still in contract and unlikely to switch anyway. So they weren't losing a customer, and were generally gaining a customer with the new phone.

      I had a similar experience with satellite radio. My receiver was stolen from my car. The local detective asked me to call the radio company and have them authorize access for the detective on the radio. The detective would then be called when someone activated the radio, and he could go question them, and also recover the ra
      • by rsborg ( 111459 )

        The company begged me not to do this, because the new person was likely to be someone who had purchased it online or some other such thing and not the original thief, and that person would likely not purchase another radio and subsequently wouldn't subscribe.

        That's too sad - that person only got the radio through an ebay/craigslist sale of a stolen item, and that impacts the sellers bottom line?

        First Sale Doctrine does not apply to stolen goods.

  • People on Slashdot are actually saying that the ability of a carrier to brick a telephone remotely is a GOOD thing?

    My, how times have changed.
  • by tunapez ( 1161697 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:47PM (#39634005)

    Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile are joining forces

    Anytime a corp tells me they want to help, experience(and corp law) tells me philanthropy is not even remotely their motive. When multi-corps start 'cooperating' for my benefit I get as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Besides being shocked that this is not already a standard practice, I'm going to predict the overhead for this stalwart effort is going to be too large to bear so some sort of profitable fix will follow...
    A silver bullet to kill the used-phone market sure would help protect us, the customers, right?

    • I feel the same way about Congressional "bi-partisanship;" it seems the only time we can get these mortal enemies to agree on anything is when it is something that totally screws Americans. For examples, see:

      PATRIOT Act
      STOCK Act (which doesn't actually ban insider trading by politicians, but rather requires them to report the profit they earned from insider trading within 30 days of earning said profit)
      et. al.

      "Bi-partisan" is congresscritter code for "fuck the people over."
  • I thought our aircraft carriers were for protecting abroad, not for domestic problems.... seems like bombing a cell phone thief is a bit drasti... OH. phone carriers. my bad.

  • Big Brother (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MacColossus ( 932054 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:55PM (#39634165) Journal
    A centralized government database of all cell phones with mac addresses, imei numbers and such. Should be even easier for them to do warrantless tracking of whomever they choose.
    • Should be even easier for them to do warrantless tracking of whomever they choose.

      They don't need it to be any easier. The only change is that while the potentially troubling uses of these technologies are already available to carriers and the government, some customer-friendly uses are finally being considered.

      Lets not pretend that objecting to this program will somehow preserve customer's rights.

  • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @02:15PM (#39634509)

    This sounds like a great idea. Keep a record of all ESN's that are stolen devices and make it so none of these can be used on any carrier in the country. This would go a long way to reduce the trafficking of stolen phones. However, there needs to be some rules on what constitutes a "stolen" phone.

    1. Carriers should not be able to disable a phone unless the owner has reported it stolen. (I.e. They cannot list phones that are on unpaid contracts, without compensation to the owner of the phone.)

    2. The database must be available to check if an ESN was reported stolen, and if it is, return contact information for the owner or his agent.

    3. The ESN must be removable from the list, if the owner of the phone requests it.

    4. A means of transferring stolen ESN's between "owners" or "agents"

    Somehow though, I don't think this is what the carriers have in mind. My guess is that they want to stop folks from getting expensive phones cheap on contract, then dumping the contract and selling the phone for quick cash. Being able to disable the phone on all US carriers would make this much harder to do.

  • Actually, it is the unexpected opportunity for the, um.. higher powers to create a database of all cell-phone owners. Without it, you could replace the SIM card in your cell phone and nobody would know who makes the call. With the database in place they will know whose cell phone a particular call was made from.
  • I have worked at Sprint in their retail stores. We would blacklist phone serials if customers told us. Friends from that time migrated to Verizon and I've heard they do the same. So the ability has existed for a while. It's been up to the customer to say something.

    And making sure a phone won't work on another carrier is only useful between T-Mobile and AT&T.

    Verizon and Sprint maintain a DB of phones they've "approved" and will not activate a device that isn't on that list. You cannot take a Verizon phon

    • After my wife's EVO 4G was stolen last year, I shopped around for a replacement. I was stunned by the number of people in the Portland area advertising EVOs, saying "like new!" and "will only work on Cricket, don't bring this to a Sprint store!" Of course I reported the phone stolen to Sprint and the police, but there's only so much that does.
    • Does the sprint registry work for all the other carriers they run, like Virgin Mobile?

  • I sure hope the FCC makes the carriers distinguish between truly stolen and phones that the carrier considers "bad" because they believe the contract is unfulfilled (or there is a balance on the final bill). In the latter case, it is often a dispute between customer and carrier and the carrier should NOT have the upper hand or leverage to threaten "bricking" the phone (declare "stolen") just because they think the customer owes them something.

    Similarly, there needs to be a mechanism to UN-blacklist a phon

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @02:44PM (#39635017) Homepage

    you can blacklist IMEI numbers and have been able to cince the Cellular ONE days of 1989.
    And honestly I have no idea why the iphone, ipad and ipod could not be blacklisted as well. this would make the street value of the stolen i devices to go ZERO.

    connect stolen ipad to itunes, screen change to black with red "STOLEN PROPERTY, call 1-800-555-1212 for more information" and it's game over for thieves.

    For some reason none of these companies want to do this.

    • by crossmr ( 957846 )

      And honestly I have no idea why the iphone, ipad and ipod could not be blacklisted as well. this would make the street value of the stolen i devices to go ZERO.

      Ipads and ipods are entirely different products. Their primary function has nothing to do with cellular data and the vast majority of people do not use them on cellular networks. A 3G ipad which has been blacklisted is still just a regular wifi ipad, and those are still worth a non-zero amount of money.

      Not to mention anything which can be rooted and

  • It seems "good" when they disable phones reported as stolen.

    But I think most people would think it's "bad" if they disable phones reported as downloading "stolen" (i.e. copyrighted) content.

    I'd prefer they only be allowed to disable phones with a court order (regardless of the reason for the order). If police and courts want to streamline a way to get the court order to the carrier in the case of stolen phones (with adequate judicial review), then I'm all for it. But I don't want carriers to become part o

  • For only $14.95 per month per phone.

  • Is the goal to get your cell phone back, or is it to make a database of criminals to track?

    "Find my iPhone" led to big drug busts sometimes when stupid thieves nicked an iPad. Now that we can't use gps tracking devices on suspects, how can a big brother keep track of criminals efficiently.

    My expectation: phone recoveries will not go up, but phone thefts will go down. The IQ of thieves arrested for phone theft will go down as well.

  • I bought a phone off ebay that was supposedly new and clean. I took it into a vzw store to register it, and they told me the ESN was coming back as stolen. At that point I asked if they could take the phone and return it to the person who had it stolen. "We don't get involved in these matters". Could they email them, call them, contact them? "We don't get involved in these matters". What if I call the police and give them the phone, will you give them the customer information so they can get them thei
  • ... The Rest Of The World?

    No, seriously, the rest of the world (well, Europe, at least), has had cross-carrier stolen device blocking for well over a decade. So ... America is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the late 1990s?

In less than a century, computers will be making substantial progress on ... the overriding problem of war and peace. -- James Slagle