Major wireless service companies have agreed to disable cellphones after they are reported stolen under a strategy intended to deter the theft and resale of wireless devices.
The system announced Tuesday relies on a centralized database that will enable providers to recognize when a phone has been reported as stolen and prevent it from being used again.
"We're sending a message to consumers that we've got your back and a message to criminals that we're cracking down," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said in announcing the new strategy with several big-city police chiefs and a wireless industry representative.
Major U.S. cities have been reporting increases in smartphone thefts as criminals steal devices to resell -- sometimes overseas -- as part of sophisticated black-market operations. Officials say that cellphones are now taken in 38 percent of robberies in Washington, and more than 40 percent of robberies in New York City involve phones. Many of the thefts are violent, resulting in either serious injury or sometimes death, police say.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said her department had devoted considerable resources in recent months to the problem. That included a weeks-long investigation that was announced last month and that resulted in hundreds of recovered cellphones and multiple arrests. But Lanier said "that's just not enough, not in a crime as complex as this one is."
Major cellphone carriers covering roughly 90 percent of U.S. subscribers are participating, said Chris Guttman-McCabe of CTIA-The Wireless Association, an organization representing the wireless communications industry. Participating carriers include ATT Inc., T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Nex-Tech.
More are likely to join as implementation continues, he said.
"We moved very quickly and we tried to set a really aggressive time frame. Different carriers have different resources," he said.
Sprint said in a statement that it has already taken several steps to deal with the problem, including restricting further voice, text and data use on a phone when a customer reports it stolen. It said the FCC's industry-wide initiative is consistent with the company's mission.
The database behind the effort will record unique identifying numbers of stolen cellphones. Carriers that receive a report of a stolen device would be able to use the database to shut the device down before it can be reactivated by a thief or other user. Officials hope the database will be running within six months, and that the system will be rolled out globally over 18 months.
The goal is to render stolen cellphones useless, drying up the market for them and removing the incentive to steal them.
"What we're announcing here today will make a stolen cellphone about as worthless as an empty wallet," said Sen. Charles Schumer, who called smartphones "catnip for criminals" because they're valuable, exposed and easy to steal.
Schumer, D-N.Y., is sponsoring legislation that would make it a federal crime to tamper with smartphones' unique identifying numbers.
Still, the FCC says smartphone users need to be careful too.
-- Consumers should never leave devices unattended in a public place.
-- They should write down the phone's make and model, serial number and unique identification number in case it's stolen. These may be on the device itself, possibly under the battery, or stored digitally on the phone.
-- Consumers can also protect data on a phone by creating a password.
-- Consumers can consider displaying contact information on the screen that shows up when a phone is idle and locked. That way, someone finding a lost phone can reach its owner.
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said cellphone thefts have been a persistent problem in the city even as other crime has dropped in the last decade. In December, his department announced the arrests of more than 140 people in a sting operation against small merchants who buy stolen iPhones and iPads.
Kelly likened the new approach to "draining the swamp to fight malaria."
The FCC said smartphone manufacturers will also implement automatic prompts that encourage users to lock their devices with a password. The industry has also agreed to create a campaign educating consumers about how to protect their cellphones and to release quarterly updates on their progress.
Officials wouldn't say how much the initiative would cost.
"It certainly won't be without costs, but we don't think about cost in this context," said Guttman-McCabe.
"This is about safety and security," he added.