Cell Phone Companies Break Evil Streak with Promise of Stolen-Phone Blacklist

A collaborative national database will deter phone theft

2 min read

Last month on the Risk Factor, Bob Charette wondered why the FCC doesn’t force U.S. wireless companies to block services to stolen cell phones as a way of combating the nationwide rise in device theft. Now, apparently, it doesn’t have to.

The nation’s four major carriers­­—Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile—announced a plan today to collaborate with law enforcement and the FCC in building a database that will serve as a stolen phone blacklist, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Blacklisted phones will be denied voice and data services on any network, making it difficult for thieves to resell them.

Similar blacklisting operations already put in place in other countries, including the U.K. and Australia, seem to have had some success in discouraging theft. As the WSJ reports, phone-related crimes in London have decreased by 25 percent in the last eight years despite a two-fold increase in usage. In the United States today, cell phones are targets of about one-third of all robberies, the Times reports.

The new database aims to reduce that number, though it will take some time to complete. If all goes as planned, the four major carriers will take six months to develop services to disable stolen phones on their individual networks. By 12 months, they will have combined their databases to prevent thieves from hacking a device to work on another carrier network. Smaller carriers are reportedly expected to join the centralized database over the next two years.

Of course, as the WSJ story points out, there will still be loopholes for thieves determined to get around the blacklist. For example, AT&T and T-Mobile use removable SIM cards to identify handsets, which are easily replaceable. It’s also possible for thieves to use software to tamper with a phone’s unique identity number. Many thieves already send stolen phones to countries like China, where stolen-phone databases don’t exist.

Still, such a national database is a first step toward addressing the growing problem of phone crime. Plus, in the minds of their customers, the companies who promise to build it might now seem just little less evil.

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