Carriers: We’ll turn off stolen smartphones

Mobile carriers led by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. agreed to disable smartphones that are reported stolen to help stem an increase in device thefts, a U.S. regulator said.

The companies agreed to begin blocking stolen devices within six months, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said today in an e-mailed notice outlining a formal announcement in Washington tomorrow.

There is a “growing epidemic” of mobile phone theft, and more than 40 percent of all robberies in New York City involve smartphones and other wireless devices, the FCC said in the e- mailed release that included Genachowski’s announcement.

The mobile providers taking part in the initiative – leading carrier Verizon, No. 2 AT&T, Sprint Nextel Corp. and T- Mobile USA Inc. – cover 90 percent of U.S. subscribers, the FCC said.

The companies’ actions “will help to deter smartphone thefts and protect the personal information on them,” Steve Largent, president of CTIA-The Wireless Association, said in an e-mailed statement today.

The industry will work to educate consumers about using applications and passwords to help safeguard personal data, said Largent, whose Washington-based trade group represents wireless carriers.

Genachowski is to be joined at tomorrow’s announcement by Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, and by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the FCC said in its release.

Surge in Thefts

Nationwide there has been a sharp increase in robberies of communication devices including phones, smartphones and tablet computers, often through violent attacks, the Major Cities Chiefs Association said in a Feb. 12 resolution. The group represents police chiefs in the 50 largest U.S. cities including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The chiefs association in its resolution asked the FCC to require that telecommunications companies have the capability to track and disable stolen devices.

“Police say tens of thousands of smartphones are stolen each year,” Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said in a March 22 statement announcing his legislation to prevent mobile-phone theft. “If service is cut off on a stolen phone, it just becomes a useless brick.The motivation to threaten, or commit violence, in order to steal a phone goes away.”

Engel’s bill, which hasn’t had an initial vote, would rely on identification numbers and a national database of stolen phones so devices couldn’t be used on a different carrier.

The wireless industry should protect smartphone users from theft and violence, Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said in a March 23 letter to Largent.