How to Fight iPhone Theft
Theft of electronic devices is growing exponentially.
A used iPad or iPhone can fetch more than $400.
Device theft has exploded. New solutions are on the way. Is the industry doing enough about 'Apple picking'?
We were buried in an e-book when the subway doors opened at the Bergen Street stop in Brooklyn. In a flash, a pair of hands dove into my date's lap and ripped away her iPad. Chasing the guy was instinctive. But he had a crew backing him up that I never saw. Instead of winning back the iPad, I found myself lying on the platform bleeding, my jaw split in half.
Nabbing electronic devices isn't new. But lately it is growing "exponentially" according to a 2011 report from the New York Police Department. The lucrative secondhand market for today's niftiest handsets has produced an explosion in "Apple picking" by thieves. A used iPad or iPhone can fetch more than $400.
How big is the iCrime wave? National data aren't available, but in New York, there were more than 26,000 incidents of electronics theft in the first 10 months of 2011—81% involving mobile phones—according to an internal police-department document. In Washington, D.C., cellphone-related robberies jumped 54% from 2007 to 2011, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. And the data may drastically undercount thefts. Since many don't involve violence, many victims don't bother reporting them.
Hwang Yang, a chef at the Modern in New York, was walking home from the subway in the Bronx in April when thieves shot him dead for his iPhone. They were caught after posting it on Craigslist. Outside Denver in 2010, Bill Jordan was leaving an Apple store, toting his new iPad in a bag. When a thief ripped the bag away, the strings tore off part of Mr. Jordan's pinkie.
Subway or bus riders make great targets, especially those engrossed in their devices near the doors. When the doors open, a veteran thief will swipe the device and flee, the doors closing behind him. I was off the train before the doors could stop me—at the cost of eating through a straw for a month.
The best way to deter theft is to reduce the value of stolen devices. After pressure from police departments, the wireless industry is moving to adopt a national registry system that would deny service to such devices. The idea is simple: When a smartphone is reported stolen, its ID number goes into a database. When another user tries to make a call or download data, the device pops up on the blacklist and the carrier denies service.
Two of the four major U.S. carriers—Sprint and Verizon—have had blacklists for some time. AT&T and T-Mobile haven't, partly because their networks identify devices using SIM cards. While SIMs can be disabled, a thief can easily install a new one. The networks operated by Verizon and Sprint identify devices by their electronic serial numbers, so devices reported stolen can't be reactivated.
After an April deal brokered by the Federal Communications Commission, AT&T and T-Mobile are rolling out blacklists that identify devices with an ID number. As part of that deal, carriers also promised to build a unified blacklist by October 2013. That should help to keep stolen devices from being transferred between networks.
Similar systems are already in place in parts of Europe, Latin America and Australia. In London, where a blacklist is in use, "mobile personal robbery" declined from 1,600 incidents per month in the fiscal year ending March 2007 to 900 per month two years later, according to the U.K.'s National Mobile Phone Crime Unit. The blacklist helped, as have better policing methods, says Jack Wraith of the Telecommunications U.K. Fraud Forum. But robbery is back on the rise—to 1,400 incidents per month last fiscal year. That increase comes after the iPhone and other fancier devices began to proliferate, notes Mr. Wraith.
A blacklist for the U.S. is a good start, but it will have important weaknesses. First, there is a loophole for tablets. Most iPads rely on Wi-Fi for connectivity, rather than a carrier network, so carriers can't block them. Another problem is that devices blocked in the U.S. will have full functionality in many other markets. Thieves in the U.K. adapted to the blacklist, exporting more stolen phones to places like Africa and India, notes Mr. Wraith.
Meanwhile, electronics recyclers like Gazelle in the U.S. pay top dollar for used electronics. "There is insatiable demand for iPhones outside the U.S.," says Gazelle founder Israel Ganot, "mostly in emerging markets." In Brazil, where an entry-level iPhone 4S retails for nearly $1,000 because of import taxes, buying "a $400 secondhand iPhone is pretty attractive."
Gazelle sells most of its devices to Hong Kong. "That's the hub where these devices get collected," adds Mr. Ganot, before being sent to other markets. Gazelle purchased 150,000 used iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2011 alone.
Mr. Ganot says that Gazelle does what it can to determine if phones are stolen, using websites like www.checkesnfree.com for Verizon devices, but there is often little the company can do.
Could technology provide an answer? What if a remote kill switch could be thrown to "fry" a stolen smartphone or tablet, making it truly useless? A representative of ARM Holdings, the British company whose technology is the foundation for most chips in mobile devices, says that it is possible to disable a device remotely so that it won't boot up.
After all, what's the point of a mobile device if people don't feel safe using it while they're mobile? In a poster for a new campaign by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, a woman sits alone with her iPhone on a dark city bus. Towering behind her is a hooded, faceless figure. "Always keep smartphones…out of sight," the poster warns.
Unknowingly, Apple even abets thieves on occasion. Because the warranty on its devices is tied to the device itself, not the owner, thieves have been able to get damaged devices replaced at Apple stores.
Apple spokeswoman Natalie Harrison says the company "has led the industry in helping customers protect their lost or stolen devices." She points to Apple's "Find My iPhone" app that can remotely wipe data from a missing device and locate it on a map. But a smart thief can simply turn off the stolen device—or wipe it clean of apps—to prevent being tracked. Thieves generally don't care about data anyway. They want to erase stolen devices so they can quickly sell them.
No system will end electronic device theft, of course. And people should be cautious when using theirs in public. But device makers could do more. Apple showed on Friday that it wants to improve security on its devices, agreeing to buy AuthenTec, a maker of fingerprint recognition technology. Hopefully the technology can be used not just to protect data but to disable lost or stolen devices.
Steve Jobs was famous for giving customers features they didn't know they wanted. Better antitheft protection is something you don't think about. Until, perhaps, your jaw is wired shut.