— Police say it is an epidemic across the country and only getting worse: Tens of thousands of smartphones stolen every year. And yes, it gets violent: Many victims are beaten, bruised and hospitalized. Authorities say there’s an easy fix, a way to stop these criminals in their tracks right now. But, they say, the wireless companies are blocking it — to protect their profits.
Washington, D.C., police chief Cathy Lanier sees it every day: “It’s a huge business, huge business. The after-market resale of these phones ... the profit that they're making is just driving this whole problem.”
And, she said, the wireless industry is putting its own profit over your safety, allowing stolen phones to be reactivated later with a different phone number. Yes, that’s right: In most cases, black market buyers or the thieves themselves can still buy service on that stolen phone.
Police chief Cathy Lanier’s message for the wireless industry: “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 customer? It's not just about profit.”
Now nearly 70 big-city police chiefs are banding together, sending a letter to federal authorities saying that there’s an easy solution — a fix that would cut these violent robberies.
A brick instead of a phone
Here’s how it works: Every cell phone has its own unique ID, or fingerprint. Once the phone is reported stolen, it would be blacklisted in the U.S. Wireless companies from Verizon to AT&T, T-Mobile to Sprint, would all share information, banning service on that stolen phone on all carriers forever.
“It becomes a brick,” Lanier told us. “It’s useless, so there‘s no profit anymore — and when you take that profit away, then there's no motivation to stick a gun in somebody's face and take their phone.”
But, police say, the wireless companies won’t do it. We reached out to the wireless giants. Sprint said it’s open to discussion. The others simply directed us to an industry spokesman, so that’s where we went.
Rossen put the question to John Walls, vice president, public affairs, for CTIA — The Wireless Association, the trade group for the wireless telecommunications industry in the U.S.: “I'm not an expert in technology, but when I look at a list of nearly 70 major police department chiefs who say, ‘This is the solution; this would cut crime,' I as the consumer say to myself, 'Why not just try it?’ ”
“We want to make sure that whatever we put in place works and it's effective and and it is comprehensive,” Walls said.
“Well, they’re the crime experts,” I said.
“They might be the crime experts, but there's this considerable technical expertise and recognition on the industry side of the fence,” Walls said. “It’s just not that simple.”
But the technology already exists. They’ve been doing it in the U.K. for a decade, and in Australia, too, where authorities say it’s working; smartphone robberies are down. The industry’s response: Let’s wait: It won’t work here until every country joins in. “Let's make sure we get, for example, Mexican service providers, Central American, South Americatodayn, African, Chinese,” Walls said.
“Why not start with the U.S.?” Rossen asked. “Why not take the first step here?”
“Because I think the larger problem, the bigger problem is overseas,” Walls said.
But police say Americans will keep getting beaten and robbed as long as the wireless industry continues to drag its feet.
When the wireless industry says, ‘Look, we don't think it's going to work’: What's your response to that?” Rossen asked police chief Cathy Lanier.
“I've got police chiefs all the across the country that say it will,” she said. “There are lives at stake here. You know, this is a deadly situation. It needs to be rectified, and it needs to be rectified immediately.”