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Cell Phone Theft and Violence: How to Protect Yourself

Posted by Writing PIs on June 29, 2012

Yesterday a stranger smashed his fist into our son’s face and threatened him with a knife.  Why?  He wanted our son’s cell phone.  Our son handed it to him.  We feel lucky nothing worse happened.

Unfortunately, violent robberies of cell phones, especially iphones and other smartphones, are on the rise.  According to Today national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen, police across the U.S. say these thefts have reached epidemic proportions. Many victims are “beaten, bruised, and hospitalized.” In this same report, Rossen quotes Washington, D.C., police chief Cathy Lanier, who says these thefts are a “huge business.  The after-market resale of these phones…the profit that they’re making is just driving this whole problem.”

Wireless Companies Can Stop Violent Thefts

There’s an easy fix to this, but up until recently, the wireless companies were dragging their feet to fix it because…big surprise

If someone demands your cell phone, don’t argue. Confrontation invites violence.

here…the solution would negatively affect their profits.  Wireless companies were allowing these stolen phones to be reactivated later with new phone numbers. Of course, U.S. carriers have allowed the disabling of SIM cards, but as all of us who own cell phones know, SIM cards can easily be swapped out.

How Wireless Companies Can Make Stolen Phones Useless

There’s a simple solution: Every cell phone has a unique ID. When a victim reports a stolen phone, that phone’s ID is blacklisted in all U.S. wireless companies, and service on that stolen phone is banned by all wireless carriers forever.

Dead phones = no profit

No profit = robbers don’t stick guns and knives in people’s faces demanding their phones

Europe already applies this technique, so it’s not as though it’s an untested and unrealistic solution.

Seventy major U.S. metropolitan police chiefs forwarded the above solution to federal authorities, but prior to April 2012, the wireless companies wouldn’t do it.  According to the Rossen article, the wireless companies complained there wasn’t the technology to do what the police chiefs suggested.  The police’s response?  “There are lives at stake here…this is a deadly situation.  It needs to be rectified, and it needs to be rectified immediately.”

Database of IDs Numbers in Process

Despite the wireless carriers complaint that they don’t have the technology to follow up on the police chiefs’ suggestion, guess what?  They’re doing it now.  According to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, major cellphone carriers and the Federal Communications Commission have agreed to set up a database of these unique ID cell phone numbers.  According to New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, “Carriers with a push of a button will be able to take highly prized stolen instruments and turn them into worthless pieces of plastic.”

Gee, guess that technology issue wasn’t such a roadblock after all.

Tips for Avoiding Cell Phone Theft

Here’s a few common sense tips to avoid being the victim of a cell phone theft:

  • Don’t openly display your phone.  Don’t leave it lying out on your car seat, on your desk, hanging off your backpack, on a table at a coffee shop…you get the idea.
  • When riding a bus, train, subway, try not to use your phone to listen to music, text, even make call unless absolutely necessary.
  • If someone demands your phone, don’t argue, debate or otherwise attempt to negotiate.  You might view yourself as a mediator or diplomat, but guess what?  You’re setting yourself up for some violent street diplomacy.

Preventing ID Theft

Another issue with cell phone theft is ID theft.  Here’s a few tips to protect your personal information should your cell phone be stolen or accessed:

  • Check your phone’s manual on how to lock it when it’s not in use.
  • If you’re shopping or conducting bank transactions online, do it over a secure WiFi network.
  • If you get an automated call or text message from your bank that your account has been compromised or deactivated and to call back, don’t.  This could be an ID theft technique called smishing (sometimes called vishing), Crooks send these scam messages, then ask for account details when the person calls back.  The FBI advises people targeted with this scam to report the messages to www.ic3.gov, the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center.
  • Safely download ringtones from reputable, well-known sites.
  • Erase all your data before returning an old cell phone to the provider.
  • Consider encrypting everything.  PCWorld offers this excellent article “How to Encrypt Your Smartphone.”
  • If you’re traveling, travel “data light.” By carrying less corporate and personal sensitive information, there’s less for you to worry and guard.

Stay safe out there, Writing PIs

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