Locking Stolen Phones Curbed Thefts

June 19, 2014 10:17 pm Last Updated: June 26, 2014 12:26 pm

NEW YORK—Robbery rates are dropping for smartphones after installation of a feature enabling remote blocking, according to a report by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office released Thursday.

An estimated 3.1 million phones were stolen in the United States last year, double that of 2012, according to Consumer Reports.

But after Apple Inc. introduced the Activation Lock feature for its iPhones with iOS 7 in September, robberies of the brand dropped by 19 percent in New York City.

In San Francisco, more than two out of three stolen devices were made by Apple in 2013. But in six months after the Activation Lock feature’s introduction, iPhone thefts declined by 38 percent, compared to the previous six months, according to the San Francisco Police Department.

When the Activation Lock is activated through an operator or a website, the phone can’t make or receive calls, connect to the Internet, or access media. To unlock it, one needs sign-in information to the owner’s Apple account.

Up to 75 percent of users activated the Activation Lock feature, Schneiderman learned from Apple. Fencers are now afraid to buy the phones, said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón at a Thursday press conference.

Data indicates criminals are focusing on other brands. While robberies of Apple products dropped by 19 percent in the city, compared to the same time last year, robberies of Samsung devices soared 41 percent in the same period, preliminary New York Police Department data shows.

Schneiderman expects the Samsung numbers to drop, as the company introduced its own anti-theft feature called Reactivation Lock in April. So far, it’s only available for some Galaxy models on Verizon and U.S. cellular networks.

Save Our Phones

Schneiderman and Gascón joined forces a year ago to push carriers and manufacturers to include a kill switch feature, which can permanently disable a stolen phone remotely. But their initiative, called Secure our Smartphones (S.O.S.), was initially met with opposition. Apple and Samsung complied only partially, by installing anti-theft features that fall short of a full-fledged kill switch.

Late last year wireless services providers association CTIA put out a factsheet saying the feature could be misused by hackers to disable phones of government agencies, or by criminals to prevent their victims from calling for help. It even questioned whether such a feature would be “technically feasible” to develop.

Nonetheless, dozens of state and district attorneys and other officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, joined S.O.S.

Meanwhile, kill switch proponents blamed the mobile carriers’ reluctance to adopt the feature, saying the carriers were protecting billions in profits. The top four U.S. wireless carriers billed an estimated $7.8 billion in theft insurance fees in 2013, according to Warranty Week.

Ultimately, CTIA caved and announced in April its members AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless, and others would implement an anti-theft feature by July 2015. The S.O.S. is not satisfied, since only a full-fledged feature, rather than partial theft protection, could ultimately deter theft. S.O.S is now pushing CTIA to speed up the implementation.

Schneiderman announced Thursday that Microsoft and Google agreed to include a kill switch feature in their next mobile operating systems—Android and Windows Phone. With Apple’s iOS already on board, the anti-theft features could soon be available on 97 percent of smartphones in the United States.

Yet, so far, all anti-theft features are turned off by default, so users have to seek out how to activate them. S.O.S. continues to push for the features to be on by default, with the option for users to opt out.