Foiling Cell Phone Thieves

July 19th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

As thefts of cell phones become increasingly violent, companies and lawmakers are looking into ways to put an end to them.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It’s called “apple picking” and according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, it’s the fastest-growing street crime in the United States.

Recently, the thefts of mobile devices including iPads and iPhones (hence the name “apple picking”) have increased dramatically, reports NBC News. In fact, nationally, one in every three robberies involves a stolen cell phone; in San Francisco, that number reaches one in two; and in New York City, cell phone thefts increased 40 percent in the last year. And not only were 1.6 million Americans victims of “apple picking” last year, the thefts are also getting more violent, to the point at which a 26-year-old chef was actually killed for his iPhone.

Now, both manufacturers and lawmakers are taking aim at the increasingly violent thefts. Apple announced that as part of the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS7, it would be introducing a “kill switch” called Activation Lock. If your phone is lost or stolen, you will be able to deactivate it via a website, thereby preventing thieves from erasing your data from the phone, even if the SIM card is removed.

Apple’s announcement came just days before Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon held a “Smartphone Summit,” calling for the four largest mobile device manufacturers – Apple, Google/Motorola, Microsoft and Samsung – to find a solution for the growing problem of violent thefts.

Schneiderman and Gascon said they appreciate Apple’s gesture, but will reserve judgment on the kill switch until they have a better understanding of its functionality. Al Pascual, senior analyst for security, risk and fraud at Javelin Strategy & Research, told NBC that Apple’s kill switch might not keep a thief from stealing sensitive information. He suggests that manufacturers develop even stronger authentication processes, such as fingerprint entry. Such security measures could meet resistance from consumers, given the fact that a third of all smartphone owners in the U.S. don’t use any kind of password protection.

And as mobile privacy analyst John Sileo told the San Francisco Chronicle, there may be some reticence on the part of device manufacturers to increase security capabilities because they can actually benefit from thefts. Each theft results in a new person having to sign up for and pay for the service. “Ultimately we all pay for that,” Sileo said. “The best thing is to get a darn lock on there and let us turn those things into bricks.”

Is your mobile device password protected? Would you feel more secure if you knew you could save all the information on your phone remotely? Weigh in here.