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nyc policeMobile phone theft is a massive and growing problem, accounting for more than 40 percent of all thefts in San Francisco in 2012. But is that a good thing for mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon?

According to one police chief, yes.

District of Columbia police chief Cathy Lanier says that carriers benefit from phone theft, going so far as to insinuate that they are somehow complicit in the underground economy of stolen mobile devices.

“The carriers are not innocent in this whole game,” Lanier told the NY Times. “They are making profit off this.”


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Our own reporter, Christina Farr, was recently robbed of her iPhone 5 at knife-point in downtown San Francisco. Police who took her statement were “nonchalant,” simply having far too much experience with similar crimes. San Francisco and New York Police have launched special initiatives and teams to curb mobile crime in response to the influx of thefts.

But what about carriers?

The contention seems to be that carriers should be doing more to identify stolen phones as they enter the underground resale market, often on auction sites like eBay, and are activated by new owners. Carriers have established a national stolen phone database that works by tracking stolen phones’ IMEI numbers, a International Mobile Station Equipment Identity that identifies a mobile device independently of the owner and can be used to block network access to a device that has been reported stolen.

One problem, however, is that full integration is not scheduled to take place until November. Australia, for example, had similar technology in place country-wide a full decade ago, in 2003. In addition, many Verizon and Sprint devices don’t yet have IMEI numbers.

Carriers say that the full database will help prevent crime, that they do care about cell phone theft, and that it is not just an excuse to sell another phone or register another subscriber.

Image credit: Dave Hosford/Flickr

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