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Federal effort under way to deter smartphone thieves

The Federal Communications Commission and the CTIA Wireless Association are joining hands in an attempt to take a bite out of smartphone crime.

The FCC and CTIA today announced a three-part plan to help prevent smartphone theft and protect consumers' personal data from falling into the hands of criminals.

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First, wireless carriers will create a nationwide database of smartphones that catalogs every single International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number currently in use and then uses the number to remotely deactivate smartphones when they are reported stolen. The database, which is expected to be online by November, will prevent any stolen GSM phone from being used on any GSM network in the United States. CTIA also said that carriers are working on a similar database for LTE devices that is scheduled to come online by the end of 2013.

The second part of the plan involves sending users direct notifications via SMS containing information on how to create secure passwords for their devices that can be used to lock down the phone and prevent thieves from accessing it. Finally, the carriers are also planning to educate consumers about mobile applications they can download onto their devices that give them the ability to remotely lock, locate or wipe data from their smartphone if it gets stolen. The carriers plan to fully enact both of these initiatives by spring 2013.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said during a news conference announcing the initiative today that he wanted consumers to know that both the FCC and the wireless industry have "got your back." He said the major goal of the initiative was to make sure that stealing smartphones is no longer profitable, since thieves will quickly find that stolen smartphones are bricked within hours of taking them. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said during the news conference that the initiative was particularly important since smartphones are increasingly storing users' personal data and are being used for sensitive applications such as mobile payments.

"iPhones and smartphones are catnip for criminals," he said. "They're valuable, they're exposed and they're easy to steal. ... They're not only stealing the device they're stealing personal information."

Schumer also said that he was introducing legislation today that would make it a crime to alter a smartphone's IMEI number to prevent it from being locked down by the national intra-carrier database. Under the proposed bill, altering the IMEI number could result in a maximum five-year prison sentence.

"We're going to send a loud and clear message that the market for stolen cell phones is now closed," said Schumer.

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