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ISSUE: Smartphone Theft

In early spring of 2012, when Julie McMahon lost her iPhone 4 in a professor’s office at the fourth floor of Newhouse School in Syracuse University, she was in a panic.

She had put almost everything in the phone, including all the numbers and some bank account information. “I didn’t want to believe it was lost at first, but then I had to accept and was extremely disappointed,” said McMahon.

McMahon is among the 1.6 million Americans whose smartphones were stolen in 2012, according to a survey by Consumer Reports. That number has reached 3.1 million in 2013, according to the survey.

Cellphone thefts account for 30 to 40 percent of all theft nationwide, says the Federal Communications Commission website. In New York City, for example, more than 40 percent of all theft is of cell phones. The loss and theft of cellphones cost consumers over $30 billion in 2012, according to a recent study by Lookout, a San Francisco mobile security company.

In response to the growing cell and smartphone thefts, U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, D-South Bronx, introduced in early 2014 the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act. The bill is co-sponsored by 15 other U.S. Representatives, including six others are from New York state. It is pending in Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

The act would require phone makers to install a “kill switch” on their devices that would allow customers to delete data and deactivate the phone remotely. That would help reduce the smartphones theft and protect consumers, say supporters of the bill. But manufacturers prefer voluntary function that consumers would have to download instead of having the kill-switch built in the phone.

On April 15, CTIA-The Wireless Association announced that several phone makers have agreed to provide a free preloaded or downloadable anti-theft tool on smartphones sold in the U.S. after July 2015. Those companies include Apple, Samsung, Verizon, AT&T, U.S. Cellular, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Phone makers say the safety and security of their customers remain a top priority for them.

“We are pleased to work together with other members of the wireless industry, including device manufacturers and operating system providers,” said John O’Malley, public relations manager at Upstate New York region of Verizon Wireless.

In an emailed statement, CTIA-The Wireless Association’s vice president of the association in charge of external and states affairs, Jamie Hasting, said: “Our members work hard every single day to help consumers prevent theft and protect their information.”

At Syracuse University, about 12 phones have been reported stolen on campus in past three months, said Ryan Beauford, who is in charge of investigations and crime prevention in the Department of Public Safety at Syracuse University.

He disputes reports that most of the smartphones stolen on campus would appear in nearby pawnshops. Because of restrictive regulation in the city of Syracuse, the stolen phones seldom end up there, said Beauford.

“At least in Syracuse, people need to provide their driver license, name, address and phone number to sell a smartphone. So it’s hard to get rid of stolen smartphones in this way,” said Beauford.

He would support, he said, the proposed requirement for a kill-switch that consumers can activate to clear their data from stolen phones. “Manufacturers can solve the problem,” he said.

Before the debate on requiring kill-switches that would allow consumers to delete and deactivate their phones, Apple has provided the customers with Find My iPhone function. It’s an application that allows people to remotely track their phones once the app is installed and being turned on.

In the case of Julie McMahon, the former SU student whose iPhone 4 was stolen, she had not turned on the Find My iPhone app. So she wasn’t able to track where the phone ended up. Several months later, McMahon left her new iPhone in a car in Boston and that phone  too was stolen. Thanks to the Find My iPhone app, she successfully tracked the location of phone, she said, but the police told her that there was nothing could be done because of insufficient evidence.

“People should be more smart when taking care of their phones,” said McMahon. “I would definitely welcome an app that can allow us remotely delete the information we have stored in our phones.”
(Mei Wang is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)

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Posted in Spring 2014 | Comments Off