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FCC, Cellphone Companies Work Together to Deter Cellphone Theft

By WNYC Newsroom

April 10, 2012

The Federal Communications Commission and cellphone companies are working together to make it difficult to use a stolen cellphone.

They have agreed to establish a database that will be able to shut off phones based on an IMEI, or International Mobile Equipment Identity, number. This is a unique number on your cellphone, similar to a car VIN number.

Using the database, cell carriers will be able to permanently block a phone that's been reported stolen from being activated on their own networks.

New York Senator Charles Schumer said that the goal of the agreement is to make a stolen cellphone "as worthless as an empty wallet." He will also introduce a bill that will make tampering with the IMEI number a federal crime.

The NYPD said that 42 percent of personal property thefts in 2011 involved cellphones.

"We saw an explosion in the T-Mobile Sidekicks and iPhones," NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. "We saw young people being robbed at high school, during rush hour."

The department added that robberies are fueled by the fact that currently carriers only disable the SIM card, which can be swapped in and out, and which has enabled a black market to exist for stolen phones.

For re-sellers, avoiding stolen goods is a serious task.

"Everything that comes in gets booked for a test first," said Ian Martin, supervisor at the East 14 St. branch of CeX, a store specializing in re-sold electronics. The store's window display beckoned to passersby with a $195 fourth-generation iPod touch 4G, and a $95 BlackBerry Curve, both lightly-used.

A sign on the door also warns prospective sellers that CeX "does not purchase found, borrowed, or stolen merchandise."

Martin said every phone or device CeX buys is run through multiple databases, including LeadsOnline, a private service that works with law enforcement to detect stolen goods. The entire check takes 20 minutes to an hour.

"During that time we check all basic functionality, check the databases and basically make sure that it's in a condition where we can guarantee it," Martin said.

When there is a red flag, it's often connected with insurance fraud rather than stolen goods: individuals who report their phone lost or stolen to their carrier, so they can get a replacement, and re-sell the old phone.

But a much bigger marketplace for these devices is online, at sites like Craigslist, where controls may be easier to evade.

Martin said plenty of would-be-patrons try to sell him stolen goods.

"It is a fairly regular thing. It's easy to spot the signs of it. Usually one person will come in with a series of brand new phones," Martin said, adding that he's in regular contact with police detectives.

"They're our allies," Martin said. "If someone's pissed off that we won't buy their phone, it's good to have the police be on good terms with the store."

Denise Blostein and Ilya Marritz contributed reporting


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