Smartphone theft a ‘national epidemic’? – National Consumers League

92_shopping_apps.jpgThe explosion in smartphone use has put the Internet in the palms of consumers’ hands. Consumers use smartphones every day; whether it is for work, to pay their bills, or to find out who “that guy” from “that movie” is. Now imagine that little device vanishes. Might someone use the personal and private information on your phone against you?


This is a fear that too many people are facing. Smartphone theft in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in New York City alone smartphone thefts increased 40 percent in just one year. In other cities the problem is even more dire. In San Francisco, about half of all robberies involved mobile phones and nationwide one in every three robberies involve a stolen cell phone. In total, 1.6 million Americans had a handheld device stolen last year. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has called smartphone theft, “a national epidemic.”

High demand for stolen smartphones on the black market is fueling this trend. A typical stolen iPhone can be sold on the street for around $200. However, many stolen smartphones are sold internationally for even more money. According to the California Department of Justice, a stolen iPhone can sell for upwards of $2,000 in Hong Kong.

In 2012, former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, in collaboration with major police department chiefs, wireless companies, cell phone manufacturers, and members of Congress, launched a broad initiative to address the increase in smartphone thefts. The project’s two major goals were to build a national database to prevent the use of stolen cellphones and to educate consumers about how to better protect their smartphone.

So far, the initiative has proved to be a great success. Many U.S. wireless companies have set up stolen phone databases that will allow them to see if a phone, reported stolen, is reactivated and can then prohibit it from being used on their network. Many smartphone manufacturers have also taken steps to improve security. For example, Apple’s iOS7 mobile operating system includes a “Find My iPhone” app and requires the user to log in before he or she can do anything with the lost/stolen device. Also, Samsung’s Galaxy S4 smartphone customers, can purchase a LoJack system, which is very difficult for thieves to remove without damaging the phone.

While there is no guaranteed way to protect your smartphone from theft, there are several tips consumers can use to better safeguard their devices. These include:

  1. Be aware of your surroundings when using a smartphone. Thieves prey on distracted victims when they initiate the theft
  2. Use your phone’s security features, particularly password or PIN locks. Choose a hard-to-guess password and change it on a regular basis
  3. Consider installing an app that can remotely track, lock, or wipe the memory of a stolen smartphone
  4. Export sensitive personal information (photos, emails, contacts, etc.) to external devices like a computer or USB drive
  5. Consider purchasing a smartphone insurance policy if the you are prone to losing phones, particularly if the phone is a newer, more desirable model; and
  6. Write down the phone number or website to report a stolen phone to your wireless carrier and keep the information in a safe place. Report a stolen phone immediately to your carrier and local law enforcement.

More information about protecting your smartphone:

Federal Communications Commission advice
Helpful information from the wireless industry