You really didn’t need to read any further than the headline to know what the New York Times article was all about: “Cellphone Thefts Grow, but the Industry Looks the Other Way.”
The article talked about the rise in smartphone theft — these days, a robber will demand your smartphone along with your wallet — and that because so many phones are lost, the police don’t really make much of an effort to find them, and the carriers have a disincentive to help you find a phone.
If your iPhone 5 is pinched, the one you paid $199.99 for with a two-year contract, well guess what? You now have to pay $649.99 to get a new one because you won’t have the contract subsidy. This led law enforcement officials to accuse the carriers of not really trying to help people recover stolen phones.
However, that’s not entirely true or fair to the carriers. They do offer ways to track phones. “It’s extremely easy to track a phone. They all have unique numbers on them. It’s unique or the phone couldn’t get on a network. So it’s not hard to discover a stolen phone on a network,” said Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates.
That number is the International Mobile Station Equipment Identity or IMEI. It’s separate from a phone number and unique to each device. Without it, no network will accept the phone. That’s why the CTIA maintains a database of services for the major operating systems, which clearly shows that the majority of devices have a track and locate feature available.
The carriers also have been creating their own IMEI databases, so stolen cell phones can be blocked via their IMEI number. AT&T and T-Mobile have a joint international database, since they have the highest world-wide reach, while all of the major carriers launched a joint database with under the management of the CTIA that blocks stolen phones nationwide.
While the Times story said many lost or stolen phones end up overseas, Gold downplayed that. “Verizon phones don’t go overseas because they are CDMA and no one else uses CDMA. Secondly, a lot of phones are uniquely keyed to the American spectrum. So yeah you can use them overseas but they are not optimum by any stretch,” he said.
Some phone recovery systems are merely easier to use than others. Apple offers the Find my iPhone feature via an app, and if you log into iCloud, it can find your phone even if it is turned off.
Recently, Samsung and Absolute Software announced a partnership to provide theft protection for Galaxy mobile devices. Samsung will embed Absolute persistence technology, the same technology used in LoJack for Laptops, into the firmware of Samsung Galaxy devices.
Another third-party solution comes from Linquet, which links your phone to a device about the size of a USB thumb drive that you keep on a keychain, and if the two are separated (such as a lost or stolen phone) both your phone and the Linquet start making noise. Your phone updates its location constantly so the phone can be tracked.
Even if you can’t recover your phone, it is possible to get a replacement for a lot less than the retail price, notes Ramon Llamas, research manager for mobile phones at IDC. The carriers offer insurance plans to give you a replacement phone in case of loss or damage but most people aren’t aware or don’t ask, he said.
“Consumers are not without their options, but do they know what all their options are? Number one is insurance against damage or theft. For as much time you spend picking out a new case you should spend that much time with your sales person on options for insurance for your smartphone,” he said.