ST. LOUIS • Major cellphone providers have met a voluntary deadline to start preventing stolen devices from being reactivated on their networks — the first step in a process police chiefs across the country are hoping will reduce thefts and robberies.
But St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom warns that how rapidly the effort affects the number of cellphone thefts depends upon word getting out to criminals. “There will be a lag time before people realize there is no resale value in phones,” he explained.
The number of cellphones reported taken during robberies throughout the country is up. In St. Louis this year, through August, it is up more than one-third compared with 2005. Reported robberies in which a cellphone was the only thing taken were up 43 percent — this even though reports of purse-snatchings and thefts of unattended belongings from cars or elsewhere were down about 42.5 percent from 2005.
Many cellphones are swiped from tables outside of restaurants, but some have been the prize in violent crimes.
The high-profile murder of St. Louis University graduate Megan Boken on Aug. 18 brought attention to the issue. Boken, 23, was in town for an alumni volleyball tournament when she was killed in the Central West End. Police said her iPhone attracted the attention of her accused attacker, Keith Esters, 18. When she resisted, he allegedly shot her twice, killing her. Esters and his cousin, accused getaway driver Johnathan Perkins, are charged with murder.
Paul Boken, Megan Boken’s father, raised the anti-theft effort in a recent phone interview. “This is an important step forward,” he said.
Until recently, cellphone service providers could take stolen phones offline remotely, but that didn’t prevent them from being reactivated by someone using a different account. It produced a booming black market in stolen phones.
Isom, a member of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, joined that organization earlier this year in its push on the wireless industry to create a stolen phone database.
CTIA The Wireless Association, along with the Federal Communications Commission, stood beside the police organization in April in pledging to establish a database and launch a public awareness campaign.
The plan included a list of voluntary deadlines for wireless companies, including an Oct. 31 date to establish databases to track devices that consumers report stolen.
AT&T, Cellcom, Nex-Tech Wireless, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless met that deadline, so their customers now can have lost or stolen phones remotely deactivated. The carriers have vowed to make their databases compatible with one another’s by the end of this month, making it impossible to reactivate a stolen phone on another carrier’s network.
AT&T and T-Mobile USA already have established connectivity to report stolen phones to a database for use by other carriers, according to CTIA.
Police say they are eager for thieves to learn that the profit is evaporating from stolen phones.
By Dec. 1, Smartphone manufacturers will begin to include information inside the packaging about how to lock smartphones. By April 30, carriers will have to educate consumers about how to remotely lock or erase data from the phones.
CTIA, an international nonprofit that has represented the industry since 1984, is submitting quarterly reports on the progress to the FCC. It says the participating providers serve about 89 percent of cellphone users in the U.S.
That number remains a concern for Boken.
“If 90 percent of users are covered, there is still 10 percent that are not,” he said. “But if this really dries up the black market, it will make the world a little bit safer for everybody.”
Isom said police must remain vigilant to criminals’ adaptability. He noted how other anti-crime efforts, such as ordinances to curb copper thieves, have been successful, yet robberies in general continue.
“With copper, they steal it because it’s valuable,” he said. “So when its value goes down, will thieves stop stealing? No. That’s why we must be aware of what will be the next thing. Cellphones are not what’s fueling crime. It’s the crime de jour right now.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified which of two men charged with murder in Boken's death is accused of being the gunman. This version has been corrected.