CONSUMER ALERT: Cell Phone Thefts Still On The Rise

CONSUMER ALERT: Cell Phone Thefts Still On The Rise (Image 1)

Surveillance video shows a woman getting robbed of her phone while in the middle of a conversation. It's a crime so common that type in “cell phone theft” on YouTube and you'll find tons of surveillance video of people having their phones ripped off.

San Francisco's police chief says in many cases, users are asking for trouble. “Think if you took 300 dollars out of the ATM machine. You would not walk down the block for several blocks counting the 20's,” says Chief Greg Suhr.

The problem is becoming so rampant that it's estimated that stolen devices cost consumers $30 billion per year.

In San Francisco, and other major cities, they account for about half of all robberies…so pressure is mounting for cell phone carriers and the device makers to figure out a way to deter theft.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon wants to see a so-called “kill switch” on phones. “…so that when they get reported stolen, they can be rendered inoperable,” he says.

Gascon accuses the industry of dragging its feet to find what he calls a “technological solution”. “Every time that a phone gets stolen, we go back and we replace a phone, so the carrier gets to make another sale, the manufacturer gets to make another sale, and the profit margins continue to be,” he says.

The nation's largest carriers, though, are getting more aggressive…now participating in a new nationwide database for stolen phones…to prevent them from being activated.

But, critics say it's yet to have a meaningful impact, because stolen phones oftentimes wind up overseas and fetch more dollars.

“A late-model iPhone brings here, right down the street from here, can bring $300. If it gets exported to Latin America or Asia or Africa, it can bring as much as $700 to $1,000,” Gascon says.

But, is a “kill switch” even possible? We went to, arguably, the leading mobile security company in the world…Lookout, Inc. which makes a popular app for smartphones.

“The notion of just being able to render a phone useless: can that happen?” we asked. “It's technically possible. A phone is just a computer. If you destroy the operating system the phone relies on, the phone can't be used,” says Marc Rogers, of Lookout, Inc. “So, if it's technically possible, why isn't it happening?” we asked. “Because it's not a very easy thing to do,” Rogers says.

Dan Simon, reporting: “Now, Apples's iPhone does have a feature to track a stolen phone and erase the data, sometimes more valuable than the phone itself. Lookout offers a similar feature for phones using Google's Android operating system, but the point, according to critics, is the entire industry needs bolder thinking.”

For now, police say the best advice is to be aware of your surroundings and use that software that allows you to lock and wipe your phone clean if you happen to find yourself in a situation like this.

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