Dennis Roberson, Vice Provost of Research, discusses a plan to turn smartphone theft into a dumb crime to Crain’s Chicago Business.

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Smartphone thefts are dropping — here’s why

Even as he tried to zone out after getting off work, Spencer Sanz couldn’t help but notice the guy sizing him up across the aisle on the Green Line el late one winter night last year. Who he hadn’t spotted was the other guy.

“The doors opened, someone behind me reached over my shoulder, ripped my phone out of my hands and the earbuds went flying off,” says Mr. Sanz, a 30-year-old Logan Square resident then living in Oak Park.

Last year, more than 15,000 people in Chicago had their mobile phones stolen, making it one of the most common crimes in the city. If you get lost in Candy Crush Saga on the bus and you aren’t yet one of them, consider yourself lucky.

Dennis Roberson thinks he has a way to better your odds. Mr. Roberson, vice provost for research at Illinois Institute of Technology and a wireless expert, is leading a Federal Communications Commission effort to come up with an industrywide plan by year-end for “kill switches” and “remote-wipe” technology that would allow victims to render stolen phones into useless bricks. In essence, he wants to turn smartphone theft into a dumb crime.

“I love a challenge, and this is a huge challenge,” says Mr. Roberson, 65, former chief technology officer at Schaumburg-based Motorola Inc. and an FCC adviser for 15 years. “But I’m feeling fairly bullish we can make some significant progress.”

A first step suggests progress. After Apple Inc. introduced a kill switch last fall for iPhones and iPads, law enforcement officials in New York and San Francisco say the number of mobile-phone thefts and robberies dropped about 30 percent, respectively, during the first five months of the year (see the PDF). Without saying that Apple’sActivation Lock was responsible, police in Chicago and Washington report similar double-digit drops.


Cellphone thieves, in fact, have told New York police they’re now making a conscious effort not to steal Apple devices, according to a spokesman for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. More evidence that thieves are preying on a different crowd, Mr. Schneiderman’s office says: Theft of Samsung products jumped 51 percent in 2014 through May.

It soon may be safer to use other smartphones in public, too. Samsung Electronics Inc. introduced a kill switch in April, and Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. plan to follow suit in their next product cycles. (Chicago-based Motorola Mobility, soon to be a unit of China’s Lenovo Group Ltd., did not respond to an interview request.)

Though crime rates overall are declining, smartphones still will be a temptation, given their great resale value in the U.S. and abroad—a device that retails for $500 here can sell for $800 in some overseas markets. “When a phone is stolen, it leaves the borders very quickly,” Mary Clark, chief marketing officer at Syniverse Technologies LLC, told an FCC hearing June 19. (Syniverse, based in Tampa, Florida, enables international roaming between carriers.) “A phone stolen in London can show up in Gambia less than 24 hours later.”

Consumer Reports estimates that 3.1 million phones were stolen in the U.S. last year. That means Americans spent about $1.1 billion on replacements, says William Duckworth, an associate professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska (read the PDF).

GSMA, a trade group representing one of the two types of fundamental cellphone technologies, has maintained a “blacklist” of stolen phones for several years. But today, just 42 of an estimated 800 carriers around the globe participate. A database of stolen phones among U.S. carriers was created in late 2012, but many police departments and consumers aren’t aware of it.


Consumers have themselves to blame, too. Industry experts estimate that half of phone owners don’t use simple pass-code locks that would prevent someone else from accessing the device.

Mr. Roberson is looking to carriers to take the lead on creating an anti-theft tool that works across all platforms and products. “The first person to call has to be your carrier, not your insurance or police,” he says. “No one wants a unique role from Apple, Samsung or whomever. You don’t want 20 different solutions.”

As for Mr. Sanz, he says he’s more careful on the el. He doesn’t sit near doors and tries not to use his phone when the train nears a stop, though he acknowledges he has become less vigilant over time. His new iPhone has a kill switch.