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

Article Written by

I have been writing for LockerGnome since relocating to Missouri seven years ago, where I continue to be a technology enthusiast who enjoys playing with the newest and latest gadgets.

  • http://twitter.com/ryandigweed0 ryandigweed

    I think they should stop this. There are many blackmarkets ffounded on this. And I hate it when you work so hard to afford a good phone, and then have it stolen :| That sure is pissing off ! 

  • JA

    Why are cellphones be re-activated? $

  • rbeland

    So where is the why? Why are they? I don’t see that in the article…

  • WineTraveler

    The Wireless companies should be charged with aiding and abetting for each stolen phone the reactivate. That would quickly get them to change their tune.

  • Richard Schmitt

       Cellular phone companies are primarily interested in collecting money for phone services.  They do not care where the phones being used on their service came from as long as it does not disrupt service.  The cellular phone companies would never admit that they know that a certain percentage of their subscribers will buy phones at prices so far below retail that it is obvious the handset was stolen.  The phone companies do not want to be put into a situation where they are telling any customer there is evidence that the customers’ phone was stolen.  That is bad for customer relations.

      On the other hand, the cellular phone companies are always peddling insurance to cover lost or stolen cell phones.  A drop in the number of stolen phones might lead to selling less insurance.  Most insurance policies, including extended warranties, have very high profit margins.

    Pawnshops are subjected to local laws prohibiting them from knowingly buying stolen goods. Laws regulating pawnshops are not applicable to cellular phone companies.  My guess is that there are some laws that would might render cellular phone companies criminally liable where they knowingly assign new telephone numbers to stolen cell phones.  After identifying such laws. the problem is then energizing state governments to enforce the laws.  

    In the event no one comes forward to identify the laws that could be applied to punish cellular phone companies for activating stolen phones, the best alternative may be to start a petition on Change.org directed to the Federal Communications Commission.

  • orbitly

    My iPhone got stolen. But my carrier told me I needed to upgrade my plan to enable tracking or deactivation. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/jodneal Joshua Odneal

      Let me guess.. AT&T?

  • Presbyter

    How about a criminal charge against the carrier as an accessory after the fact in a theft? Stealing a phone is only profitable for the thief if the phone can be activated, and the person/company activating it knowing that it is stolen, or reasonably expected to know it is stolen, is culpable. And, given that in North America, unlike elsewhere, most phones are locked to a carrier, they can reasonably be expected to know they are stolen, because the will have already activated them once.

  • Pavlakis

    Maybe we need an app called Fry the Fone…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1142324659 Tim Turner

    So where is the linked, organized petition or letter for us to sign and send to the companies.  Can’t you be more pro-active?

    • whiningmachine

      Can’t you?

  • Guest

    If I bought something that I knew was stolen, I would be an accomplice to the theft for accepting stolen goods.    Why aren’t cellphone companies held to the same standards as citizens?  

    I can see it now, some disreputable cellphone carrier will create an “equipment retrieval” unit to steal phones so that they can sell them again if this continues.

  • http://FireYourBossProject.ORG/blog Sandor Benko

    When my phone was stolen the police told me they could not track it. They could, if there was communication between police and the carrier, but apparently there isn’t. Now I wonder if it’s been deactivated at all – probably not.

    • Tinman57

      Did you try contacting your carrier to report it stolen?

  • http://twitter.com/rootnl2k rootnl2k

    S/N number can they no be imprinted into the phone?

  • http://www.mightycasey.com MightyCasey

    Welcome to Chapter 1 of Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” – the best way to stop this douche-baggery in its tracks is to talk loud (VERY loud) about it, and demand change. The telecoms can do this, they just don’t *want* to do this. Just like there are no recalls of defective artificial joints in the US, but there are in Western Europe, US telecoms would rather just have us absorb the costs of our own beatings/losses rather than take steps to ensure our actual safety. Let the games begin! And may the odds be ever in *our* favor, dammit.

  • Sean Dean

    I got a mobile phone off eBay that was blacklisted phoned up the police they took it away no contact sinse £110 out off the window