Senate moves to curb cell phone thefts

Cell phones were stolen in about one-quarter of the robberies in Dayton so far this year, and criminals target mobile devices because often they are the most valuable possessions people carry around, the Dayton Daily News reported in a May 12 article.

Cellular carriers can deactivate phones that are reported lost and stolen, and the major U.S. wireless companies are creating a national database of electronic serial numbers of stolen phones to prevent their reactivation through other carriers.

But criminals can modify or swap out the phones’ serial numbers and then reactivate the devices.

The Mobile Device Theft Deterrence Act of 2013 makes it a federal offense to attempt to circumvent the database by tampering with cell phones’ identification numbers.

“I am sponsoring the (bill) to add criminal penalties of up to five years not for the theft, but for intentionally evading the database by tampering with the cell phones,” said co-sponsor Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, during a visit on Tuesday to Trotwood.

The serial numbers on mobile phones are similar to the Vehicle Identification Numbers on automobiles, and all phones have them, said CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade association representing the wireless communications industry.

Cellular providers can deactivate phones that are reported lost and stolen, and often they can remotely remove any personal data stored on the devices. Wireless companies then place the serial numbers of stolen phones on their “blacklists,” meaning the phones cannot be reactivated on those carriers.

Criminals get around blacklistings by activating the phones on different carriers. But the largest wireless companies are building a national database of electronic serial numbers of stolen and lost phones to prevent reactivation on other carriers.

Criminals, however, can still modify the serial numbers or purchase new ones that allow them to reuse the phones.

The Mobile Device Theft Deterrence Act of 2013 would make it a federal crime to alter these unique identification numbers. The maximum sentence under the proposal is five years in prison.

“The reason it should be a federal offense is because the federal government regulates technology,” Brown said. “Because technology crosses state lines, we thought it made sense that it should be a federal crime.

In a prepared statement, the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, said, “These ‘apple-picking’ crimes of stolen smartphones are rapidly rising and we must make it clear that if you alter a cell phone identification number of a stolen phone, you will face serious consequences.”

The proposed legislation also has the support of CTIA and some law enforcement agencies.

“We are hoping that once people realize it is a crime to change (out the unique identification numbers) they won’t be able to flip them,” said Trotwood police Capt. John Porter.

Cell phone theft is a growing problem nationwide.

About 40 percent of robberies in New York City, Washington, D.C., and some other major U.S. cities involve cell phones or other portable electronic devices, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Dayton police recorded 183 robberies between Jan. 1 and early May, and cell phones were taken in 42 of the crimes.

Criminals in the region have stolen cell phones from elderly residents, children, family members and delivery drivers.

On Nov. 13, Tyree Horn, 17, of Trotwood, was attacked near the the city’s Dayton RTA hub by a man who stole his iPhone 5. He said police were able to recover the stolen phone using a built-in computer application that tracked the location of the device.

But Tyree said it would have cost about $750 to replace the phone if police had not been able to find it.

“It meant a lot for me to get my phone back,” said Tyree, who is enrolling in Wright State University’s pre-med program this fall.

The resale value of stolen cell phones fuels the black market for the products, police said. Smart phones, such as the iPhone, can be resold online or on the streets for hundreds of dollars, because they are basically handheld computers.

The newspaper found dozens of people in the region selling smart phones online that had “bad” electronic serial numbers. Some phones with “bad” serial numbers are stolen.

Cell phone theft can lead to other costly problems.

People store lots of private and sensitive information on their mobile devices, and thieves who access the information can use it to commit identity theft or other financial crimes.

A bill in the Ohio Legislature seeks to make it a felony to steal cell phones, computers, laptops and tablets because of the large amounts of private information they contain. This legislation comes on the heels of a law change in 2011 that changed the threshold for felony theft from $500 to $1,000, so stealing this sort of hardware is now generally a misdemeanor.

It is unclear whether any of the bills will become law. But authorities said better laws are needed to quash the thriving black market for stolen mobile phones and other electronic devices.

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