1 in 3 Robberies Last Year Included Cell Phone Theft: Here’s How to Defend Yourself

In 2011, roughly one out of three robberies nationwide involved theft of a cell phone. Unsurprisingly, the thefts grew most rapidly in urban areas where cell phone density is highest. In New York City, cell phones were stolen in more than 40 percent of all robberies, and in the District of Columbia they were stolen in 38 percent of robberies, according to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) summary of the issues.

These small, expensive and highly useful smartphones have provided a rich opportunity for enterprising crooks to make money in two ways: reselling the phones and stealing your information.

As costly as it is to replace a smartphone, the greatest risk to most consumers is the enormous amount of personal and financial data stored on their devices. If criminals can access credit card and banking information, passwords, your accounts on email and social networks, your contact lists or view your calendar, they can use it to steal identities, rob homes, stalk you, send spam through your accounts, infect your devices, make purchases under your accounts and more. 

To combat this growing criminal epidemic, the FCC has joined forces with the wireless phone industry and law enforcement groups. Led by the FCC, the group is taking a three-pronged approach:

  1. By the end of 2013, the FCC and carriers will create a centralized national database designed to track stolen phones and disable them, making the phones unusable. This move is designed to stop both the data collection from these phones for identity theft crimes, and remove their resale value.
  2. By the end of this year, expect to see the big carriers — AT&T, Sprint Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile — institute a program that allows consumers to disable phones reported as stolen, as well as an education campaign on how you can remotely lock your phones, delete personal information and track your phone’s whereabouts.
  3. The FCC, companies and law enforcement are also working with members of Congress to make it a federal crime to alter the unique identifiers in a phone that would allow criminals to circumvent the database initiative.

“It’s just too easy for a thief to steal a phone and sell it on the black market. This program will make it a lot harder to do that. And the police departments we are working with tell us that it will significantly deter this kind of theft,” FCC Chairman Genachowski explained.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who intends to introduce legislation criminalizing the tampering of a phone’s unique identifier said, “Our goal is to make a stolen cell phone as worthless as an empty wallet.”

These are critical steps in reducing cell phone crimes, but these initiatives cannot work without the participation of smartphone users.  When the carriers are ready to provide information on how to report your phone as stolen and how to delete your information, you need to take the time to learn how to do this for your phone, and for your children’s phones. 

To protect your own, your family’s and your contact’s information, you also need to:

  1. Password or PIN-protect your phone – research suggests only half of smartphone users have a password protecting their phones, yet this is likely to be the best way to thwart the curious person who finds your mobile device and wants to snoop through your information, and it will at least slow down the criminals. 
  2. Consider installing one of the “where’s my phone” applications that will let you track its location should it get lost or stolen.
  3. Install mobile security software to protect yourself from criminals who want to virtually steal information from your phone by installing malware.

Then, if you do not have a backup version of your friends’ and contacts’ phone numbers, take the time to do so now before your phone is lost.