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Cellphone thefts rise, but will the industry react?

Posting in Technology

These days, an iPhone, unlocked and contract-free, can cost up to $849. So it's no wonder that handheld gadgets have become a prime target for thieves. Just in Washington, D.C., a record 1,829 cellphones were stolen last year. In San Francisco, where a new phone will get you $400 to $500 in cash, almost half of all robberies last year involved a cellphone.

But the cellphone industry is also a lucrative market, bringing in $69 billion in the U.S. in 2012, according to research firm IDC. And demand is fairly inelastic: people who lose phones tend to pay to replace them.

So what incentive does the industry have to clamp down on cellphone thefts? “The carriers are not innocent in this whole game. They are making profit off this,” said Cathy L. Lanier, chief of the police department of the District of Columbia.

There have been efforts to track phones, including a nationwide database for stolen phones which tracks the device's unique ID number. Verizon also says it has a similar database, which prevents phones reported as stolen from being reactivated on its network.

But these solutions are limited, as many stolen phones find their way overseas, out of reach of databases, and also because identifying numbers can easily be changed. Even Apple's "Find my iPhone" software, which locates a lost phone on a map and allows the owner to erase its data remotely, only works if the phone is turned on.

The cellphone theft situation has been likened to auto theft, a widespread problem that was largely thwarted by improved antitheft technology from the auto industry. But when it comes to developing such technologies, “the cellphone industry has for the most part been in denial," according to Chuck Wexler, of the Police Executive Research Forum. "For whatever reasons, it has been slow to move.”

Some security experts say that technological solutions are possible - such as software to block a phone from working once it is reported lost. Whether such fixes prove financially advantageous to cellphone manufacturers and carriers remains to be seen.

Photo: Apple

via [The New York Times]

— By on May 2, 2013, 8:10 PM PST

Channtal Fleischfresser

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Channtal Fleischfresser has worked for The Economist, WNET/Channel 13, Al Jazeera English, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press. She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure