FCC Asks Wireless Carriers to Help Cut Smartphone Thefts by Q1 2015

The FCC's chairman wants major U.S. wireless carriers to enable smartphone data wiping and other safety features by default by the end of March in 2015 to help protect users from phone thefts.

smartphone theft

The Federal Communications Commission is asking the big four wireless carriers in the United States to turn on anti-theft features in their smartphones by the end of March in 2015 to help protect consumers from phone theft by making the devices useless to thieves if they are stolen.

Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, made the request last week in letters that he sent to leaders of Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, as well as to U.S. Cellular, according to a Dec. 5 report by The Washington Post.

In his letters to the carriers, Wheeler asked the companies to make "'lock/wipe/restore' functionality operational by default on all devices … by the end of the first quarter of 2015," the story said.

The FCC also last week released a 137-page study, called the "Report of Technological Advisory Council (TAC) Subcommittee on Mobile Device Theft Prevention," which concluded that mobile phone thefts occur at least one million times a year in the United States. According to the data, "at least one-tenth of all thefts and robberies committed in the U.S. are associated with the theft of a mobile device," the document stated. "As a caveat, there is considerable concern that the reported theft rate may be under reported, especially in cities that have not established a law enforcement focus on this criminal activity area."

The new TAC report was compiled because smartphone theft "has been identified as a major issue facing consumers, law enforcement and the mobile device ecosystem," according to the FCC. The report establishes recommendations for the FCC for lessening mobile device theft, the agency said.

In New York City, smartphone thefts represent an increasing share of all thefts, according to the report. "Between 2010 and 2013, the percentage of larcenies from a person involving a smartphone increased from 47 percent to 55 percent, and the percentage of robberies involving a smartphone increased from 40 percent to 46 percent. In 2013, more than one-quarter of all thefts and over half of grand larcenies from a person (55 percent) involved a smartphone. Between 2010 and 2013, robberies not involving a smartphone fell by 12 percent, while the percentage involving smartphone grew by nearly the same amount (13 percent)."

In San Francisco, "the majority (59 percent) of the approximately 4,000 robberies … in 2013 involved the theft of a smartphone," the report stated. "The victims of those robberies ultimately recovered less than one in ten stolen smartphones. Apple smartphones constituted the vast majority (69 percent) of smartphones stolen in San Francisco robberies."

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports compiled its own estimates for smartphone thefts nationally, the report stated. Some 1.6 million Americans had their smartphones stolen in 2012, according to Consumer Reports, while 3.1 million victims reported such a crime in 2013, which was a 94 percent increase in just one year, the group reported.

The issue of smartphone theft has caused communities across the nation to look for ways of fighting the problem. In August, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a "kill switch" bill that mandates the inclusion of a mechanism that can remotely disable a smartphone by its user if it is stolen, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The California law requires all smartphones sold in the state after July 1, 2015, to include a kill switch that disables a stolen phone and turns it into a useless brick as part of a strategy to end the problem of cell phones being stolen during the commission of violent street crimes.

Under the new law, new cell phones sold in the state will have to prompt consumers to enable a kill switch as the default setting during the initial setup of a new smartphone.

While the new kill switch law is only for California, it's believed that smartphone makers will incorporate and include the kill switches in all devices that they sell in the United States starting next summer. That's because they presently don't offer devices with special features just for some states. That's different from the auto industry, where vehicles sold in California have more stringent and complicated emissions systems than vehicles sold in the rest of the nation.

Apple included kill switch capabilities in its phones starting with its iOS 7 mobile operating system, which was introduced in June 2013. Google and Microsoft have said they will join Apple in incorporating kill switches into their software designs as well. After the introduction of Activation Lock, thefts of iPhones fell by 19 percent in New York City, 25 percent in London and 38 percent in San Francisco, according to statistics released by the cities.

Kill switches have for years been a prevalent feature in enterprise devices, but the technology has been slow to arrive in the consumer realm.

In November 2013, attorneys general from 31 U.S. states jointly sent a letter to the heads of major smartphone manufacturers Google, Microsoft, Motorola and Samsung calling for the rapid implementation of a kill switch in their phones. The goal is to dry up the secondary market in stolen phones, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a press release.