Amy Stewart had much of her life nestled in her smartphone. It gave her instant access to her professional and personal email, to her Facebook and Twitter accounts.
So when she left the phone in a cab near the Country Club Plaza last year and it was subsequently stolen by a taxi driver, she felt uncomfortably vulnerable.
It was only when the phone was used to take pictures, which were automatically posted to one of her social network accounts, that Stewart was able to shame the cab company into admitting one of its drivers had her Galaxy S.
“If this person was savvy, they could use my information however they wanted to,” said Stewart, a social media manager who lives in Kansas City and works in Overland Park. “It bothered me.”
Today, the stealing of a phone can prove damaging beyond the cost of the gadget. A smartphone typically offers a passageway to invaluable information about the owner. Access to someone’s email accounts alone can be all that’s needed to thieve their online identities and pilfer from credit card and bank accounts.
That’s part of what has increasingly attracted thieves to mug people for their smartphones. For instance, police in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently investigated a string of robberies where a gunman repeatedly targeted people for their smartphones. Two in five robberies in New York City involve mobile phones. Nationally, law enforcement in other major cities report 30 to 40 percent of robberies include the taking of cellphones. No numbers were available for Kansas City.
On Tuesday, the nation’s largest carriers, under pressure from federal regulators, agreed to immobilize stolen mobile phones. They will form a shared database of stolen phones to render them useless to thieves.
At a Washington news conference held by the wireless companies and the Federal Communications Commission, the phone companies said that within six months they would establish a database tracking stolen devices and use that list to block service to them. The companies also agreed to regular meetings with law enforcement on the issue and to kick off campaigns to make their customers smarter about protecting the data in their smartphones
The phone companies will now keep a communal list of phones identified either by their electronic serial numbers, or ESNs, or their international mobility equipment identity, or IMEI. Once those numbers are put on the list a phone can never be used again. It becomes a paperweight. So someone showing up with a phone claiming it was a gift or an eBay purchase still wouldn’t be able to activate it if it’s on the list of stolen devices.
“We were seeing that thefts were becoming a heightened issue. … People were being assaulted for them,” said Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for Overland Park-based Sprint Nextel Corp. “This is a step to fight the problem.”
Sprint and other companies had been keeping lists of stolen phones for several years. The action promised Tuesday by the carriers would simply combine those databases, meaning a stolen AT&T phone, for instance, couldn’t be fired up for a T-Mobile customer.
The carriers also said they would design the activation of phones so customers would be more aware of their password options, and of applications that can remotely scrub data off phones when they area reported stolen.
More than anything, experts suggest password protection to prevent a stolen phone from quickly turning into stolen identity. Password features are built into most smartphones. You can require a simple code, like that needed to use an ATM card, to gain access to email and the bevy of other things you do on the phone.
Some phones allow a connect-the-dots finger swipe. The newest Android operating system can be locked down until you point the phone’s camera at your face (although that can be cracked fairly easily with a photo of the handset’s owner).
“It can be a minor hassle, but password-protecting your phone is the best thing you can do in case you lose your phone or it gets stolen,” said David Jacobs, the consumer privacy fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Stewart, in fact, started using a four-digit pass code to restrict access to her smartphone after an anxious few weeks when it was missing. The code is a mild inconvenience every time she wants to send a text, make a call or check Facebook, but she said it was a worthwhile hassle.
“It’s not ideal,” she said. “But it just takes one second, and I feel better.”
The industry could go a step further, said Parker Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. Alhough some BlackBerry phones have built-in encryption — a far more robust protection than simple password systems — it remains unavailable in the more popular iPhone and Android devices.
“Most individual consumers don’t care much about it until after all their data have been stolen from their phones,” he said.
The nation’s top four wireless carriers —Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc., Sprint and T-Mobile USA Inc. — all signed on to the deal to track and disable stolen phones. Combined, they cover 90 percent of U.S. cellular subscribers.
The industry faced legislation introduced in Congress that would have required it to do essentially what the FCC rallied carriers to do. The wireless trade organization said it would post quarterly updates on the development of its stolen-phone database and on the availability of apps given consumers more ways to protect the information on their smartphones.
A report released last month by the Pew Internet & American Life Project estimated that nearly half of American adults now used smartphones.