Rossen Reports

Officials to cellphone makers: Install technology to curb  thefts

Nov. 12, 2013 at 7:32 AM ET

Video: With more than a million cellphones stolen every year, attorneys general from 31 states are demanding that cellphone makers install technology that would make the devices useless to thieves. Jeff Rossen investigates.

In a Rossen Report that aired on TODAY in February, a reformed iPhone thief said that stolen smartphones can fetch hundreds of dollars apiece on the black market.

"As horrible as it may sound, I tend to look for women — the older the better, generally," he said. "If I think that you can't catch me, I'm going for you."

The numbers are staggering: More than a million cellphones are stolen each year, more than a hundred every minute — and it gets violent. The thefts can happen fast — criminals snatch phones right out of people's hands, on train platforms and on busy streets — and in some cases, beat victims senseless.

On Tuesday, attorneys general from 31 states are demanding action, sending a letter to leading cellphone makers Samsung, Motorola and Microsoft demanding the companies "take all steps necessary to put consumer safety and security ahead of corporate profits..."

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Law enforcement officials say there's technology that could curb celllphone thefts right now. New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is leading the effort to get companies to install anti-theft technology. He says that if all smartphones had a simple "kill switch," we'd all be safer.

Here's how it would work: If a thief steals your phone, you report it and built-in technology would deactivate the phone, locking the thieves out and making it useless no matter how many time it's wiped and rebooted. But officials say companies still haven't installed it as a standard feature.

"They don't have the financial incentive to do it," Schneiderman said. "In fact, they have the financial incentive not to do it."

Why? Often when people lose their phone, they just go back to the cell phone maker to buy another one. In fact, consumers spend $30 billion a year to replace lost and stolen phones. "That's a huge part of their business," Schneiderman said. "They're in business; it's all about money."

In response to the letter from the attorneys general, Microsoft said it has features to protect personal information, and that the company is working to address the issue. Motorola and Samsung declined to comment.

If the companies don't comply, the AGs say they will consider legal action.

In the meantime, there are a few ways to protect yourself.

Video: NBC’s Jeff Rossen provides a quick tutorial on how to protect your iPhone from being used by thieves.

Samsung has developed an app called "Lo-Jack" that can lock thieves out of your phone, but experts say it's not enough because you have to pay extra for it. Officials say Apple is doing a better job — if you have an iPhone, you can activate the "find my phone" setting for free in the latest operating system iOS7 (just go to your phone's "settings" icon, and then click the "iCloud" tab). When "find my phone" is turned on, no one can wipe and reactive your phone without first entering your Apple ID and password, making your phone useless to thieves.

Right now, you have to manually turn this feature on. Authorities want Apple to make it automatically on as standard in every iPhone.

Full statement from Microsoft:
“Windows Phone has built in capabilities enabling users to find, lock and even remotely delete data from a lost or stolen phone. We agree this is an industry-wide issue and are working closely with the CTIA and other organizations to address.”

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