State, local officials step up efforts to prevent cellphone theft

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Just hours before they were scheduled to meet with representatives from four leading phone manufacturers Thursday, two public officials announced they have lined up support from 40 government leaders and scholars urging phone makers to make devices with antitheft features.

Warning about the prevalence of violent robberies involving cellphones, New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón have repeatedly called on the tech industry to create phones that would no longer be usable once reported stolen. They plan to meet in New York on Thursday with executives of Apple Inc., Google Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and Microsoft Corp.

Five other state attorneys general, several district attorneys and professors from universities such as Harvard and Yale have now joined with Schneiderman and Gascón to form the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative. They plan to investigate the criminal, technical and economic aspects of cellphone theft.


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New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli also signed onto the initiative, revealing letters he sent this week to the four manufacturers participating in the meeting. In them, DiNapoli said he was concerned that “the continuing publicity surrounding cellphone crime” would hurt the “substantial” and “long-term” investments of New York’s pension fund in the companies.

The New York State Common Retirement Fund owns about 817,000 shares of Google stock, about 0.25% of its current market cap. The fund also controls about 0.3% of Apple, 0.3% of Microsoft and 0.06% of Samsung, according to the letter.

Critics have said the companies are disinterested in deterring theft because many victims end up having to buy a new phone. The companies have generally declined to comment on the issue.

Still, Apple announced an improvement to its Find My iPhone feature this week that requires a user to log in before doing anything to a lost device.

Schneiderman said in a statement this week that he would “reserve judgment” on the feature until he learned more about it.


He and Gascón have been asking manufacturers to embed a feature -- free to consumers -- that would work regardless of whether the device is off, has a SIM card or is tampered with by a thief.

“The cellphone industry cannot ignore that smartphone theft is a crime that can be fixed with a technological solution,” Gascón said in a statement. “That is why law enforcement leaders across the country are joining us in the Secure Our Smartphones coalition to urge the industry to exercise social responsibility for the safety of our communities.”

The coalition includes Delaware Atty. Gen. Beau Biden, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and four other Bay Area district attorneys. It does not include any officials from Southern California.

Though the Los Angeles Police Department did not respond to a request for updated data, Gascón has said 30% of all robberies in Los Angeles last year involved a mobile communications device. And Long Beach was ranked last year as the fourth-worst city for cellphone theft, according to data from insurance company Protect Your Bubble.

The coalition says 40% of all robberies in New York involve phones, with nearly 11,500 reported cases of stolen Apple devices in the first nine months of 2012.

More than half of U.S. adults now own a smartphone, but a recent survey by McAfee found that barely 1 in 3 people lock cellphones with a password.


Although the solution proposed by Schneiderman and Gascón may deter some thieves, experts warn that hackers always find ways around safeguards.


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