TODAY   |  April 11, 2012

Wireless industry to help prevent cell phone theft

The wireless industry is now responding to a suggestion by law enforcement to blacklist stolen cell phones, making them useless to thieves. NBC’s Jeff Rossen reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

CARL QUINTANILLA, co-host: Back at 7:42 this morning on ROSSEN REPORTS , a follow-up to a story we brought you last month. Violent cellphone robberies on the rise, and a solution the wireless industry was resisting until now. TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen is here with the update. Jeff , good morning.

JEFF ROSSEN reporting: Hey, Carl , good morning. This is a major update and it's good news for all of us. These violent robberies are incredibly dangerous. Innocent people beaten, held up at gunpoint, even brutally attacked by thieves who want their cellphones. Police told us there's actually an easy way to stop these crimes, but the wireless industry was standing in the way. Our story aired just weeks ago. Now the cellphone companies are changing their tune and taking action. Fort Lauderdale , a thief sucker punches this man, beating him to a pulp. The victim tries to get up, but the robber kicks him back down and makes off with his iPhone. And in Los Angeles , a man follows this teenage girl into her apartment lobby just to snatch her phone, punching her over and over again. But this girl fights back. The crook pushes her against the wall and pummels her. Washington, DC , Police Chief Cathy Lanier sees it every day. This is a big business .

Chief CATHY LANIER: It's a huge business. Huge business. The aftermarket resale of these phones is just driving this whole problem.

ROSSEN: And she says the wireless industry was putting its own profit over your safety, allowing stolen phones to be reactivated later with a different phone number . Yes, that's right. In most cases, black market buyers or the thieves themselves were able to buy service on that stolen phone, lining the pockets of the wireless companies. What is your message for the wireless industry?

Chief LANIER: Shame on you . I mean, this is something that's fixable.

ROSSEN: Police told us there's an easy fix that would stop criminals in their tracks. Here's how it works. Every cellphone has its own unique ID or fingerprint. Once the phone is reported stolen, it would be blacklisted in the US. Wireless companies from Verizon to AT&T , T-Mobile to Sprint would all share information, banning service on that stolen phone on all carriers forever.

Chief LANIER: It becomes a brick. It's useless. So there's no profit anymore. And when you take that profit away there's no motivation to stick a gun in somebody's face and take their phone.

ROSSEN: Just three weeks ago the wireless industry told us they didn't want to do it yet. The police chief here in DC said this was about money.

Mr. JOHN WALLS (CTIA-The Wireless Association): Well, it -- it's a money loser in a lot of respects.

ROSSEN: They said it's better to wait until other countries try it first.

Mr. WALLS: Let's make sure we get, for example, Mexican service providers , Central American , South American , African, Chinese.

ROSSEN: But why not start with the US? Why not take that first step and fix it here?

Mr. WALLS: Well, because I think the larger problem, the bigger problem is overseas.

ROSSEN: But after our story aired, a sudden 180. The wireless companies are now agreeing to it. They will blacklist any phone reported stolen in the US, making it useless to thieves. Lawmakers and the FCC call it a victory for consumers.

Mr. JULIUS GENACHOWSKI (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): We're sending a message to consumers, 'We got your back.' And a message to criminals that we're cracking down, 'Don't waste your time.'

ROSSEN: The FCC is now giving cellphone companies 18 months to get the system up and running. The companies say this agreement shows their dedication to public safety and will enhance the security and protection of all their customers. And so we love bringing you updates like this.

QUINTANILLA: Always nice when they get a little push, too.

ROSSEN: Yeah.

QUINTANILLA: Thanks very much, Jeff Rossen .