A month ago, the “Today” show and Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier took the wireless industry to task regarding its reticence to turn off stolen smartphones, making them useless for resale and, thus, curbing the rising rate of street crimes involving the devices.

The nation’s capital is a hot spot for such thefts, but a new policy of paying for robbery tips and vigorous police work cut smartphone robberies by 15 percent in recent months. But the phones still could be resold to others and reactivated with a new phone number.

The U.K. wireless industry put protocols in place some 10 years ago to handle the disabling of stolen phones. When asked by “Today” why the U.S. wireless industry wasn’t jumping on the chance to waylay smartphone snatching by killing stolen devices over the air, John Walls, vice president/Public Affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association, said such a plan needed to be global in scope, adding, “Let’s make sure we get, for example, Mexican service providers, Central American, South America, African, Chinese…”??

“Why not start with the U.S.?” Today’s Jeff Rossen asked. “Why not take the first step here?”

“Because I think the larger problem, the bigger problem is overseas,” Walls answered.

What a difference a few weeks can make. After some 70 chiefs of police wrote a letter to involved governmental and industry officials regarding smart-device theft and possible solutions, things happened fast.

Yesterday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled the PROTECTS Initiative – a series of practical, meaningful solutions to combat cellphone theft. “We’re sending a message to consumers that we’ve got your back, and a message to criminals that we’re cracking down on the stolen phone and tablet re-sale market and making smartphone theft a crime that doesn’t pay,” he said.?

The PROTECT Initiative has three parts:  ?

>> It creates a database to prevent use of stolen smartphones and tablets, enabling carriers to disable stolen smartphones and tablets, thus reducing their value on the black market.

>> It puts in place automatic prompts on smartphones and tablets telling consumers to set up passwords and to take steps to secure their devices

>> It launches a public-education campaign that instructs consumers to use applications that increase security and reducing the value of stolen devices, including apps that enable consumers to locate, lock and wipe missing smartphones and tablets.

The wireless industry now has been tasked with submitting quarterly updates to the FCC regarding its progress on these initiatives.  “If deadlines aren’t met, the commission will take action,” the chairman warned. “But I fully expect the deadlines to be met on schedule, if not earlier. Also, for the first time, we’re announcing today that the FCC will establish regular, quarterly meeting with the police chiefs on this initiative and on any new issues that might arise.”

CTIA’s Plan

Following the chairman’s announcement, CTIA President/CEO Steve Largent issued the following statement: "CTIA and its members have always been strong advocates for the safety and protection of America’s wireless users. Today’s announcement is yet another example of our industry’s continued dedication to advance public safety and enhance the security and protection of our customers. By working closely with law enforcement, these four steps will help deter smartphone theft and keep America’s wireless users safe."

He also outlined his group’s new voluntary industry commitments to help solve the theft problem:

>>  Implement databases to prevent reactivation of stolen smartphones. Wireless providers will work to initiate, implement and deploy database solutions, using unique smartphone identifying numbers, designed to prevent smartphones reported by their customers as stolen from being activated and/or provided service on their own networks. Using unique GSM smartphone identifying numbers, GSM providers will develop and deploy a database designed to prevent GSM smartphones reported as stolen from being activated or provided service. By October 31, 2012, U.S. GSM providers will implement this database so that stolen GSM smartphones will not work on any U.S. GSM network. In addition, U.S. providers will create a common database for LTE smartphones designed to prevent smartphones that are reported stolen by consumers from being activated or provided service on any LTE network in the U.S. and on appropriate international LTE stolen mobile smartphone databases. This database will be completed by November 30, 2013.

>>Notify consumers of features to secure/lock smartphones with passwords. By April 30, 2013, smartphone makers will implement a system to notify/inform users via the new smartphones upon activation or soon after of its capability of being locked and secured from unauthorized access by setting a password.

>> Educate consumers about features to secure/lock smartphones with passwords. By December 31, 2012, smartphone makers will include information on how to secure/lock new smartphones in-box and/or through online "Quick Start" or user guides.

>> Educate consumers about applications to remotely lock/locate/erase data from smartphones. Wireless providers will inform consumers, using communications including email or text messages, about the existence of – and access to – applications that can lock/locate/erase data from smartphones. Providers will also educate consumers on how to access these applications, including those that are easy-to-find and preloaded onto smartphones. Substantial progress on this will be made by December 31, 2012; it will be completed by April 30, 2013.

>> Educate consumers about smartphone theft, protections and preventative measures. By July 1, 2012, the wireless industry will launch an education campaign for consumers on the safe use of smartphones and highlight the solutions one through three by using a range of resources, including a public service announcement and online tools such as websites and social media.

And starting June 30, CTIA will publish quarterly updates on its Website in conjunction with its quarterly progress report to the FCC.

Carrier Comments

Verizon, which did not comment on the “Today” show coverage of the problem on March 22, was quick to respond this time.
 
"Verizon Wireless has a long-standing commitment to protect our customers if their mobile device is stolen, including such resources as an internal system that does not allow devices reported as stolen to be activated on the Verizon Wireless network,” said Kathleen Grillo, senior vice president/federal regulatory relations at the carrier. “We support the broader, industrywide solutions announced today. We will work with policymakers and collaborate with other providers, device manufacturers, and application and software developers to increase consumer protections, and to empower consumers with additional resources to help ensure stolen devices cannot be used or accessed illegally."

Pro-Active Actions

Even before the FCC came up with its PROTECT initiative and the CTIA detailed its “industry commitments,” other U.S. carriers had handset-theft protocols in place.

“Sprint works aggressively with law enforcement agencies to deactivate lost or stolen phones, as well as their efforts to deter cell phone thefts,” that carrier noted in March.

Here’s what Sprint (which is supporting the new database) does when a subscriber reports a stolen phone:

>> Check the account for fraudulent or unusual use;
>> Place a lost or stolen restriction on the customer’s account, which blocks all voice, test and data use;
>> Place a restriction on the phone’s use until the customer contacts Sprint and makes customer care aware that the device has been located, a replacement device has been activated or they wish to discontinue service for that account; and
>> If the lost or stolen device is replaced or the service is discontinued, the device’s ESN or IMEI code is placed on Sprint’s lost/stolen file database that prevents it from being reactivated on Sprint’s network.

T-Mobile also had a plan in place:

>> Notify the carrier immediately to prevent any third-party charges from accruing.
>> Lock your handset with a pass code.
>> Utilize a mobile security application.  A number of applications, including one offered by T-Mobile, allow customers to locate and/or wipe a lost or stolen cell phone.
>> Consider subscribing to a handset insurance program. In the event that a handset is lost or stolen, replacement can be made at a much lower cost.
>> If your phone is stolen, notify the police and keep a copy of the police report. This will assist you with any insurance or service claim.

Debra Baker

The Daily

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