Cell Phones and Identity Theft

shutterstock_85529755Identity theft has been called the fastest growing crime in America. And one of the fastest growing means of identity theft is theft of cell phones.

Two thirds of Americans now own cell phones. ABC news ran a story this week about cell phone robberies. According to ABC, one out of every three robberies in America now involve cell phones. Thieves literally rip them out of victim’s hands, steal unprotected data, turn them off so they can’t be tracked, then wipe the data, and resell them.

According to the FCC:

  • More than 40% of all robberies in New York City involve smartphones and other cell phones
  • The situation is getting worse: In Washington, D.C., cell phones were taken in 54% more robberies in 2011 than in 2007, and cell phones are now taken in 38% of all DC robberies.
  • Other major cities have similar statistics, with robberies involving cell phones comprising 30-40% of all robberies.
  • Robberies are, by definition, violent crimes, and there are many instances of robberies targeting cell phones resulting in serious injury or even death.
  • Loss or theft of an unsecured smartphone often results in access to sensitive personal data.

A web site specializing in compiling statistics on identity theft, IdentityTheft.info points out that:

  • 15 million Americans have their identities used fraudulently each year with financial losses exceeding $50 billion.
  • That represents 7% of all adults with an average loss of $3,500.
  • Close to 100 million additional Americans have their personal identifying information placed at risk of identity theft each year when records maintained in government and corporate databases are lost or stolen.

The FCC, police and legislators have launched initiatives to halt the epidemic of cell phone thefts. They include:

  • Creating a global database to prevent use of stolen smartphones.
  • Teaching users to lock their phones with passwords and educating them about lock/locate/wipe applications.
  • Introducing Federal legislation to criminalize tampering with unique hardware IDs on cell phones.

Making it a crime to tamper with the unique hardware identifiers built into cell phones has been a key part of successful foreign initiatives to deter cell phone theft by creating databases of stolen cell phones which carriers could then block.

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