U.S. cellphone carriers took a major step on Wednesday toward curbing the rising number of smartphone thefts with the introduction of databases that will block stolen phones from being used on domestic networks.
The new database blocks the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, a unique identification number in the cellphone akin to a VIN (vehicle identification number) in a car. The ID number remains with the cellphone no matter what SIM card is used.
When mobile equipment is stolen or lost the owner can typically contact their local operator with a request that it should be blocked. The local operator with an Equipment Identity Register (EIR), it then will put the device IMEI into it, and can optionally communicate this to the Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR) which blacklists the device in all other operator switches that use the CEIR.
All four major carriers are expected to merge their databases a little over a year from now, allowing any of them to turn off devices that have been identified as stolen.
The move follows April’s announcement of a national database of stolen phones, to be maintained by the four major US carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint — in co-operation with the FCC.
One out of three robberies nationwide have involved the theft of a cellphone, according to an F.C.C. summary of the new plan. The thefts have grown most rapidly in urban areas; cellphones are stolen in more than 40 percent of all robberies in New York City and 38 percent of robberies in the District of Columbia, according to the groups.
The Device Theft Deterrence Act of 2012 (S.3186) would make it a federal crime to tamper with the unique identification number of a cellphone.
Several other countries, including the U.K., France and Germany, already operate similar databases of stolen phones. Nineteen countries have linked their national databases to an international database that is meant to hinder transport of stolen phones across borders.