If you’re like most people, the single most valuable item you carry around with you on a daily basis is your smartphone. And that fact has certainly not gone unnoticed by the criminal elements of our society. Smartphones are easy to steal and easy to resell, often retaining much of their original value, even on the black market. Stealing a smartphone can be much easier than stealing a wallet or a purse - a single moment while your attention is diverted is all it takes for a thief to grab one from a cafe table, for instance, or even right out of your hands, if the perpetrator is brazen enough.
Smartphones are small, valuable and extremely easy to resell. That has made them extremely popular among thieves, and there’s a lot more to the picture than just petty thievery by low-level street punks. In fact, there’s an even darker side of the picture, in terms of smartphones and criminal behavior. The link between terrorism and smartphones is one of the reasons governments, particularly United States officials and lawmakers, are getting involved in trying to deal with the problem. And the solutions proposed by US lawmakers are causing a great deal of controversy, especially among carriers.
Smartphone Theft Statistics
The numbers regarding smartphone theft are shocking. According to Consumer Reports, an estimated 1.6 million smartphones were stolen by thieves in the US in 2012 alone. And considering the increase in smartphone sales since then, there can be little doubt that the numbers were much higher for the following year.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that one out of three robberies in the US now involve smartphones. And in the big cities, the numbers are even higher. In New York, for instance, half of all robberies involved smartphones as targets. The same goes for San Francisco, and in Oakland, three out of four robberies involved smartphone theft.
These are sobering statistics, indeed. And that’s another reason that the “pandemic” (as it’s now being referred to in the press), has gotten the attention of US senators, who are proposing new guidelines to address the growing issue.
Follow the Money
It’s no surprise that thieves and robbers are focusing their energies on smartphones. In fact, a smartphone bought legitimately in the US can fetch a lot more elsewhere. For instance, a smartphone bought in the States for $700-800 can easily fetch more than $1000 abroad. They’re small, portable and in demand. So it’s easy to see why criminals find smartphones so attractive. They’re easy to steal and even easier to sell. People have even been murdered for smartphones, as in the recent case of a Korean immigrant who was shot and killed in the Bronx - the robber left the victim’s wallet and took the phone. He was later apprehended when he tried to sell the phone on Craigslist.
But aside from the small-time criminals who snatch one phone at a time to resell on the black market, smartphones are also attracting the big-time criminals.
The Links Between Organized Crime, Terrorists and Smartphones
One of the many schemes uncovered recently was the one involving a crime ring in California last March. The scam revolved around using homeless and desperate people who were talked into signing contracts with carriers for smartphones without ever planning to pay the monthly fees. The phones were turned over to the criminal gang, which resold the phones abroad at a huge profit. The scheme involved some $4 million worth of smartphones. And this is just one example. Phone stores, particularly Apple outlets, have been the target of numerous robberies in the past few years.
Even terrorists have used stolen smartphones to fund their activities in the States and abroad. In 2009 a group of suspected terrorists were apprehended in an FBI sting operation, in which stolen smartphones were to be sold and the proceeds used to purchase weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles and machine guns. Clearly, this level of criminal activity warrants some serious consideration about what actions can and should be taken to protect the public and national security.
The Controversial Proposals for Dealing With Smartphone Theft
Due to the growing concerns over criminals and smartphones, four US senators have proposed a “Smartphone Theft Prevention Act”, which would require carriers to implement the use of a kill-switch, which would allow victims of smartphone theft to log into the carrier’s website and permanently block the phone from being used.
This solution has already been proposed by law enforcement officials and others who have tried to gain support for initiatives to confront the problem in this manner. A “Secure Our Smartphones” plan which advocates the kill-switch approach was created by Eric Schneiderman, New York’s Attorney General, and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. The proposal met with opposition by carriers, and has created a debate over whether or not the carriers are merely acting in self-interest by attempting to block the initiative.
Gascón believes that the carriers are more concerned about their multi-billion dollar theft insurance income, rather than the best interests of their customers, and there are many others who agree. The claim made by the carriers is that the kill-switch won’t stop hackers, and there is some logic in that, but many feel that a kill-switch solution would greatly reduce the rate of smartphone theft. As Gascón puts it: “Carriers are rejecting a technological solution so they can continue to shake down their customers”.
And the debate continues. Meanwhile, the average person is still quite vulnerable and the problem is only getting worse.
What Can I Do to Protect Myself?
Smartphones (and theft insurance) are expensive, but having one stolen from you can also be a threat in other ways. Your smartphone carries a great deal of personal information and often financial data that can be used to drain your bank account or at least run up some serious bills in your name. If you carry a smartphone around with you and use it in public places (and who doesn’t nowadays?), you are vulnerable to its being stolen or even taken from you by force. However, there are a few things you can do to minimize the possibility of theft and the damages that may occur if it is stolen:
Always be aware of your surroundings when carrying or using your smartphone in public. Never leave it laying in easy reach of a thief when it is not in use.
Make sure you have a backup of any important data stored on your smartphone.
Activate and implement any built-in security features on your phone, especially the PIN locking function. Don’t use easy passwords.
Install a smartphone tracking app, preferably one that allows you to lock the phone remotely and wipe the data stored on it (more on this below).
It’s also not a bad idea to show your support for the initiatives being proposed regarding kill-switches. The threat of being robbed is quite real, and even the problems associated with having the phone stolen from you without force or simply losing it are enough to make these initiatives worth considering and supporting.
Considering the fact that most kids these days also carry smartphones, anything that can be done to minimize the threat is important to be aware of. Make sure your child knows about the potential dangers of carrying and using a smartphone in public.
If you’re thinking of purchasing a new smartphone, it’s probably smart to go ahead and shell out the extra money for theft insurance. Until the demand for stolen smartphones significantly decreases, it’s a wise investment for those who can afford it. And if you can’t afford the insurance, then you probably can’t afford the price of a replacement phone, either.
Buy a Cell Phone Tracker
One of the best ways to protect yourself against theft or loss of your smartphone is to download and install a cell phone tracker app. There are many of these available on the market now which will enable you to lock the phone remotely, wipe any stored data and even track the location of the phone.
These spyware apps are typically used for monitoring cell phone activity - parents use them to keep an eye on their kids’ online behavior and employers use them to watch over their employees. But they are also very useful in dealing with theft or loss of smartphones.
For instance, many of these apps will allow you to first lock the phone remotely in case it has simply been misplaced. Most also allow you to use the built-in GPS function on the phone to locate the phone. If you have lost it at the office, at home or in a restaurant somewhere, the real time GPS locator function will allow you to find out its exact location.
If the phone has been robbed or stolen, many of these apps allow you to not only get a fix on the phone’s location - a useful tool for the police in recovering the phone and apprehending the thief - but also to wipe the personal data stored on the device before it can be used by the person who stole it.
These phone tracker apps are inexpensive and easy to install. Anyone who owns a smartphone should consider investing in one.