Outsmarting the Outlaws



As cell phone thefts soar, lawmakers look for ways to protect consumers and thwart the thieves.

By Jo Anne Bourquard

Property crimes may be down, but smartphone thefts are escalating, say law enforcement officials. This is particularly true in large cities, where about 40 percent of robberies involve the theft of a mobile phone, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports.  Consumer Reports recently disclosed that cell phone thefts nearly doubled last year, increasing from 1.6 million stolen phones in 2012 to 3.1 million in 2013.

People talking on their phones in public, inattentive to their surroundings, make easy targets for thieves, who are after the wealth of personal financial data contained on the phones and the high resale value phones fetch on the international black market.

A recent study by Creighton University found 145 million Americans currently have smartphones, and they spend about $4.8 billion a year on cell phone insurance and another $580 million replacing stolen phones.

The survey of 1,200 smartphone users in February 2014 indicated overwhelming support (99 percent) for giving consumers the option of disabling their lost cell phones. The study estimates consumers could save about $2.6 billion a year if cell phones came with “kill switches.”

What’s a Kill Switch?

Kill switch software allows the smartphone to be made inoperable after it is reported stolen by wiping out just about everything on the phone—contacts, photos, emails sent and received, and other information—and locking it, preventing the phone from being reactivated without an authorized user’s consent and password.

Many believe this technology is the best way to thwart the thieves. Lawmakers in California and Minnesota debated bills this year to require the use of a kill switch or other technology to disable stolen phones.

Kill switch legislation also has been introduced in at least three other states—Illinois, New York and Rhode Island. In addition, pending legislation in New York prohibits wireless phone providers from activating mobile telephones belonging to another owner unless authorized to do so.

“One of the top catalysts for street crime in many California cities is smartphone theft, and these crimes are becoming increasingly violent,” says California Senator Mark Leno (D). He believes kill switch technology is capable of stopping “cell phone thieves in their tracks.”

The California Senate passed legislation in early May that requires all smartphones sold in the state to come pre-equipped with theft-deterring technological solutions to render the device useless if stolen, beginning next year. Senate Bill 962, authored by Senator Leno and sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, is supported by law enforcement groups, and would allow consumers to opt-out of using the technology. Companies that fail to comply with would be subject to a penalty.

“We’re one step closer to ending the violence and victimization that far too many people have been subjected to. California truly has an opportunity to lead the way and end this public safety crisis,” says Leno.

Minnesota enacted a law in May requiring all smartphones sold after July 1, 2015, to have the switch software. The law also requires retailers of used smartphones to keep records of sales and nixes the use of cash for payment. “With this new law, Minnesota is leading the way and acting on this growing threat to public safety,” says Representative Joe Atkins (DFL), sponsor of the measure in the House.

At the federal level, several pieces of legislation have been introduced that would: require providers to install kill switches; ban anyone from altering or removing the unique ID numbers on mobile devices; and prohibit cell phone companies from providing service to any mobile device that has been reported stolen.

Industry Seeks Solution

In April, Oregon Senator Bruce Starr (R), NCSL president, applauded the wireless industry’s “commitment to reduce the number of smartphone thefts” after it announced its support of a voluntary campaign to include the kill-switch anti-theft technology in all phones manufactured after July 2015.

 CTIA, the wireless industry association trade group, is promoting that the kill switch feature be preloaded or available as a free download and that consumers be given the choice whether to activate it. The group also believes an authorized user should be able to reverse the kill switch feature when the phone is found.

“Wireless companies, manufacturers and operating system companies are taking a step in the right direction,” wrote Rhode Island Senator Dominick J. Ruggerio (D) in an opinion piece in the Providence Journal. He’s concerned that although technology has “made our world more convenient, it has also put users at greater risk.”

The program has commitments from Apple, Google and Samsung as well as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless among others. “This flexibility provides consumers with access to the best features and apps that fit their unique needs, while protecting their smartphones and the valuable information they contain,” says CTIA’s Steve Largent. “It’s important that different technologies are available,” he says, “so that a ‘trap door’ isn’t created that could be exploited by hackers and criminals.”

Other Efforts

The FCC has teamed up with law enforcement agencies and wireless carriers—including Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile—to create a national database of the unique identification numbers of cell phones reported stolen, which went live at the end  of 2013.

Carriers use these ID numbers (known as IMEI, or International Mobile Equipment Identity) to disable the phone’s ability to communicate with its mobile network.

Some law enforcement officials say the database won’t solve the problem, however, because phone IDs can be easily modified by thieves, and because many stolen phones end up overseas where they are not covered by the database.

The FCC also has launched a public education campaign, the PROTECT Initiative, to encourage consumers to activate and use the password protection option on their smartphones and tablets.

Attorneys general in at least 29 states, Guam and Puerto Rico have joined prosecutors, police chiefs, state and city comptrollers, and public safety activists to form the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) initiative to find technical solutions to removing the economic incentives for re-selling stolen smartphones.

The coalition says it’s time to halt the increase in crime that has smartphone theft—also known as “Apple picking”—at its core.


By the Numbers


Percentage of American adults who own cell phones


Percentage of American adults who own smartphones


iPhones and Android phones stolen or lost every minute in the United States

3.1 million

Cell phones stolen in 2013  

175 million

Mobile phones, primarily smartphones, sold in the United States in 2013


Sources: Pew Research Center Internet and American Life report, 2013; New York Attorney General’s Office; International Data Corporation, and Consumer Reports

Jo Anne Bourquard is a senior fellow in NCSL’s Member Outreach and Digital Communications Division.

Additional Resources

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