Governments Worldwide Are Losing The Battle Against Smartphone Theft

In South Africa, Chris Preece was hacked with a machete. In the United States, Megan Boken was shot twice in the chest and neck. In England, Keith Soons was stabbed in the head with a screwdriver.

Three victims on three continents, all killed for the same object: a cell phone.

“A young man in the prime of his life was left to die on a cold back street, all for the sake of a mobile phone," a Gloucestershire police officer said after Soons’ death in 2011.

Around the world, smartphone thefts have not only skyrocketed but have also turned increasingly violent, forcing law enforcement, government and industry officials to scramble for solutions to a modern-day global crime wave with deadly consequences. The robberies are being driven by an insatiable demand for a product worth hundreds of dollars that millions of people carelessly hold on subways and sidewalks, creating what police say is a crime of opportunity.

In the United States, where nearly half of all robberies each year involve mobile devices, police departments have created special undercover units to disrupt the stolen phone black market. In one common sting operation, a plainclothes officer hawks stolen phones on the street, then other officers swoop in and arrest the buyers.

In Colombia, where 1.6 million phones were snatched last year, the government has produced a series of television commercials to discourage people from buying stolen devices. In one ad, blood begins oozing out of phones in people’s hands, followed by a message on the screen that suggests buyers of stolen devices are indirectly responsible for the often-violent robberies plaguing the country.

In Russia, Moscow police plan to reduce phone thefts by using handheld devices that scan phones from up to 5 yards away and match them to a list of stolen handsets. The SIM card readers, however, have sparked privacy concerns because they can also read data on phones.

The South Korean government is debating legislation that requires phone manufacturers based in that country, including Samsung, to embed a "kill switch" in every new phone that renders them useless if stolen.

But so far, such efforts around the world have done little to slow the rising street crime because most countries are not working together, experts say.

Wireless carriers in the United States, Australia and Britain are sharing blacklists of stolen phones with their competitors so they can prevent those devices from being reactivated within those countries. The GSMA, an international association of wireless carriers, also keeps a database that wireless carriers worldwide could check to prevent stolen phones from being reactivated on their networks.

Yet carriers in many countries still do not share data on phone thefts beyond their own borders, allowing thieves to ship pilfered devices around the globe in an underground trade now worth some $30 billion a year, according to the mobile security firm Lookout.

"Most countries are trying to solve the issue nationally," Mika Lauhde, the former head of security for Nokia, told The WorldPost. "But if I steal a phone in the U.S. and it’s on a U.S. carrier’s blacklist, that doesn’t mean anything if I take it to Latin America because the blacklist is not working there. When these phones are moving around the planet, the solution has to be global."

Some countries have started collaborating. The U.S. and Mexican governments agreed in 2012 to deactivate stolen phones in both countries to prevent cross-border trafficking -- the first deal of its kind between the U.S. and another country. At the time, Mexican officials said the partnership should stop Mexican drug cartels from using phones stolen in the U.S. to communicate with relatives of kidnapping victims.

That same year, government, police and industry officials from around the world met in Colombia to discuss ways to combat stolen phone trafficking. Officials from Samsung, Scotland Yard and the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates American phone companies, were among those who attended the summit. But the officials left Bogota with only an agreement that officials would work together in the future to address the problem.

That smartphones have become objects worth killing for reflects the vast difference in their retail price from place to place. The same iPhone that can cost an American customer just $200 with a two-year service contract can fetch as much as $2,000 in Hong Kong or Brazil, where import taxes have driven up the price of Apple products.

But Hong Kong and Brazil are hardly the only destinations for stolen phones. Thousands of them are smuggled across South America by Colombian drug cartels that have found a new, less risky business in trafficking the devices.

British police have tracked down stolen phones in 16 countries across Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. Many filched phones in Europe have turned up in a bustling second-hand market called Tiptoe Lane in Ghana's capital, Accra.

Law enforcement officials say the solution to reducing phone robberies lies not with police, but with the industry. Top U.S. law enforcement officials last year demanded that smartphone makers -- including Apple and Samsung -- add new technology that can disable stolen phones, undercutting their value on the black market.

Apple and Samsung responded by announcing new security features last summer that they said would allow consumers to render their devices useless once stolen. But the effectiveness of Apple’s new anti-theft feature remains to be seen, and wireless carriers have blocked the rollout of Samsung’s kill switch feature to preserve their profits from selling phone insurance, according to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and London Mayor Boris Johnson have joined Gascon in the call for stricter anti-theft measures. Johnson said that about 10,000 smartphones are stolen in the city of London each month.

"We need the industry to take this issue seriously and come up with a technical solution that can squash the illegal smartphone market that is fueling this crime," Johnson said in August.

Meanwhile, the frequency of phone robberies, and the associated violence, is getting worse. Thefts of smartphones and other mobile devices increased in several major cities nationwide in 2013. Nearly 2,400 cell phones were stolen in San Francisco last year, a 23 percent rise from the year before, according to police.

In Colombia, 14 people were killed last year in phone robberies -- eight more than the year before.

Juan Guillermo Gomez, a 25-year-old lawyer, was stabbed to death for his smartphone while walking home from a local bar in Bogota in June 2012. Two men were convicted of Gomez’s murder and sentenced to prison -- one for 44 years, and the other for 39. A 17-year-old accomplice was charged as a minor and sentenced to five years.

More than a year later, Gomez’s mother, Emilia Ospina, who lovingly refers to her son as "Juangui," told The WorldPost that she "felt sorry" for her son’s killers. In their zeal to make a couple of bucks, they had stolen much more than just a phone.

"When I think about Juangui, I think the world, and Colombia, lost someone who could have made a good change," she said in an interview. "His friends lost a great friend. I lost a great friend. And the Lord got a great lawyer."

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