Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Why can't we brick our phones when they're stolen?

Australia and England do it. But we don't. The land of Oz has seen mugging and robbing for smartphones take a dive when phones are required to be bricked when a customer reports the phone to be stolen.

Our personal electronics have become little gems. They are full of personal information, music, and expensive functionality that you won't find in lesser devices. Smartphones fetch good money on the black market.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the phones and their theft, yet the carriers and the manufacturers have shown little desire to fix the problem. My wife had a phone stolen once and I asked T-Mobile to brick it, but they would not. Why not? They did not give a reason why.

This is a story that many journalists have reported on. Even today, The Register in *England* is running a story about smartphone theft in the U.S. It seems that the New York Attorney General is asking the major manufacturers why they can't build a "brick my stolen phone" feature into their gear.

I think he's asking the wrong party. He needs to go to the carriers for the answers. Why?

Look at the subsidy built into the phones. Buy an unlocked iPhone and you're talking $500-700. Even a new Samsung Galaxy S III will cost more than $500 at retail. Now if you buy with a two year contract, you're going to pay substantially less, but you're on the hook for two years. The value of the hardware is peanuts compared to the money the data plans bring in. The economics are simple, phone companies have absolutely NO incentive to brick a stolen phone. Zero.

Who are the carriers looking out for? Certainly not us, because they really can't resist the lucre of the data plan. The carriers are looking out for the CEO and the board of directors, plain and simple. These very important people need to pay for maintenance on their summer home in Spain when they're not on vacation.

So the Attorney General of New York is going to get some info from the phone makers. Then if he's smart, he's going to talk to the carriers because the manufacturers are just doing what the carriers ask. If he doesn't start working on the carriers to change their policies, he may be tacitly acknowledging that stolen phones are a profit center for the carriers.

So here's something to consider. Every phone has an EIN printed on it and burned into the hardware. Why is it that the carriers are not matching EINs for stolen phones? It's not that hard to call all the carriers and ask them if the phone has been stolen. Carriers could be required to identify the phone as stolen. We could even have a national registry of stolen phones that makes it easy to track them down, or to at least verify if the phone was stolen before purchase.

Carriers have the ultimate power and responsibility for the phones they sign up for subscriptions. But they are not acting like responsible corporate citizens when they fail to help the rightful owners track down their phones and help prosecute people who buy stolen goods. Apply the pressure to the manufacturers and the carriers, then the market for stolen smartphones will dry up.
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