Why Are Stolen Phones Being Reactivated by Wireless Carriers?

Why Are Stolen Phones Being Reactivated by Wireless Carriers?Have you ever had your cellphone stolen? If so, you know the frustration of having lost all your contact information and the general overall inconvenience and expense of having to replace it. Apparently, however, these problems are of little concern to the big corporations that are only worried about the almighty dollar. Believe me, I am not an advocate of more federal laws and requirements for businesses, but it is unfortunate that we have knotheads who don’t realize (or don’t care) that their decisions are often a detriment to a society that is forced to place regulations on them. This was once again brought home to me this morning (3-22-12) on the Today Show, when a segment covered a practice by wireless carriers that allows them to activate a phone even after the phone has been reported to the police as stolen.

However, one of the most disturbing aspects of the segment involved videos of people being beaten by assailants whose only motive was to steal their victims’ smartphones. This was bad enough, but the reporter went on to explain that every cellphone made is embedded with its own distinctive ID or fingerprint, which is intended to allow the carrier to be aware when it has been reported stolen, thus making it possible for them deactivate the phone’s service and mark the phone in a manner that would keep someone from reactivating it. This would make the phone worthless to the assailant or thief since it would turn the phone into nothing more than a paperweight.

However, instead of using this built-in protection, these corporations allow thieves to sell the stolen units and even grant them new phone numbers. This can all be happening through wire carriers that just plain don’t care, despite the fact that the victim may have been beaten, kicked to the ground, and injured. One of the best statements on the program came from the Washington DC Chief of Police, who stated to the wireless carriers:

“Shame on you. This is something that is fixable. Why wouldn’t you, in the name of customer service and safety, want to protect your customers? It’s not just about profits.”

Sound outlandish? It’s not as uncommon as you might think. Last year my daughter, while on a business trip, had her BlackBerry stolen by a thief who grabbed her phone and pushed her to the ground. Fortunately, she was not injured and her company replaced the phone for her. At the time, I know we thought this must have been just an isolated incident and that the phone couldn’t be used once it was reported stolen. We learned in a hurry, however, that this wasn’t the case and that any slimeball can activate a stolen phone and receive a new phone number, right from the carrier that logged the theft. Of course, this makes one wonder if the theft was even logged into the carrier’s system or just flat out ignored.

But the lunacy gets even better when CTIA – The Wireless Association (founded as the Cellular Telephone Industries Association), a trade group for the wireless telecommunication industry located within the confines of the United States, says through its representative that solving the problem is not so simple. In his opinion, crime experts can say what they will, but the US cannot put a stop to this practice without the cooperation of carriers worldwide. If this is the case, however, why have countries like the UK and Australia seen a dramatic drop in smartphone thefts since they instituted programs to track stolen phones as well as a means to prevent their reactivation?

To me, the convoluted logic used by the CTIA gives validity to the thefts and, it would seem, other thefts. What if a car thief, for instance, were allowed to steal a car and then register it in another state or country? In other words, the CTIA’s stand appears to be more of an excuse than a solution for the tens of thousands of people who have their phones stolen each year. But again, one would think that the wireless carriers, minus the excuses, would institute a policy that would eliminate any stolen phone from being reactivated in an attempt to keep innocent people safe.

Some thieves are not just after a physical phone, but the personal information that is stored on the device, as well. Remember, smartphones also store such things as data, phone numbers, credit card numbers, personal information, and much more. Even if a phone cannot be reactivated, it could still provide valuable information to a savvy crook since this information can often be sold, on the Internet, for a great deal of money.

My suggestion would be to require that all phones reported stolen have all their factory specs and data erased so that the thief would be unable to use it. Oh, wait. There is already an app for that. Android lists some dozen applications that can remotely wipe a stolen phone clean so that the victim doesn’t have to worry about someone accessing their information.

My recommendation to find such an app for your phone is to find your phone in Lookout. This application has been working for me and could also work for you.

Now if we could just get the wireless companies to cooperate.

What do you think?

Comments welcome.

CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by Salon de Marie

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I have been writing for Lockergnome for eight years.