Cell phone theft doubles, but ‘kill switch’ is finally on the way. Will it stop crime?

Consumers Union
Consumers Union

Smart phone theft is exploding nationally, but carriers this week promised to deploy a simple new technology that could soon render stolen phones useless.

Consumer Reports said Thursday 3.1 million consumers had their smartphones lifted during 2013, double the number of victims in 2012, according to its annual State of the Net survey. Another 1.4 million phones were lost and not recovered, the survey found.

All that theft has had state and federal legislators sniffing around the problem for some time, urging cell phone makers and carriers to implement a “kill switch” that would render a lost or stolen phone useless. That would  theoretically dry up the now-thriving market for stolen phones.   Carriers have resisted the solution for some time. Why would they do that? If you value each smartphone at $600, the market opportunity presented by 4.5 million lost and stolen phones is $2.7 billion.  That might have something to do with it.  There are also legitimate concerns about hackers wiping out phones as pranks, and about the customer service headache that will no doubt accompany implementation.

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But in part under threat from a state law that could be passed as soon as next week in Minnesota,on Tuesday the industry announced the “Smartphone Anti-theft Voluntary Commitment.”  Carriers promise to implement a kill switch and remote data wiping for new phones manufactured after July  2015.

Meanwhile, we certainly shouldn’t blame carriers for the whole problem.  Consumers still don’t seem to realize how serious loss of a cell phone can be — at least until after they lose the phone. (And if you’ve ever been with someone who’s just lost a phone, you know about the hyperventilation, etc.) How do I know this? Look at this data on what consumers do (and don’t do) to protect their phones:

  • Set a screen lock with a 4-digit pin (36 percent) NOTE: Those who don’t are CRAZY
  • Backed up data to a computer or online (29 percent)
  • Installed software that can locate the phone (22 percent)
  • Installed an antivirus app (14 percent)
  • Used a PIN longer than 4 digits, a password, or unlock pattern (11 percent)
  • Installed software that can erase the contents of the smart phone (8 percent)
  • Used security features other than screen lock (e.g. encryption) (7 percent)
  • Took none of these security measures (34 percent)

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About Bob Sullivan 1319 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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