'Kill switch' could curb smartphone thefts

Every time you pull out your smartphone in public, you're making yourself a target.

The mobile gadgets are easy to spot, easy to steal and fetch hundreds of dollars quickly on the black market.

Protect Your Bubble, a company that sells insurance for personal electronics, says 113 smartphones are stolen every minute in the U.S. In New York, those thefts account for 14 percent of all crime.

Cops have a name for it — Apple picking — but the iPhone maker is actually out front in the effort to curb gadget snatching. An activation-lock feature on Apple's iOS 7 allows the owner to wipe data from a stolen phone, which can't be reactivated without the owner's password.

Other manufacturers have been slow to add antitheft features to their phones, though, despite urging from police. Now, a coalition of law enforcement officials, including Illinois' Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is pushing an initiative called Secure Our Smartphones.

The group has been pressuring cellphone makers to provide a remote antitheft feature called a "kill switch." If a phone is lost or stolen, the owner simply reports it to the carrier and the phone is rendered inoperable. If the phone doesn't work, there's not much reason to steal it.

So why hasn't the industry embraced the technology? The coalition has some troubling theories. Phonemakers have a disincentive: If your phone is stolen, you will probably buy another one, and fast. The carriers who service those phones have reason to resist, too. They make a lot of money selling insurance against loss or theft.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who co-chairs the SOS, was working with Samsung, which wants to install a "kill switch" on its phones. But Samsung needs permission from the carriers, and Gascon says they're balking.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent letters to the carriers asking them to explain, and followed up with a news release: "If carriers are colluding to prevent theft-deterrent features from being preinstalled on devices as means to sell more insurance products, they are doing so at the expense of public safety and putting their customers in danger."

Yes, danger. While many phones are lifted from their owners' purses or snatched from their hands, many others are taken through force.

In Chicago, a 68-year-old woman died after being shoved down the stairs at the CTA's Fullerton Brown Line station by a 17-year-old who fled with an iPhone he stole on a train. The youth, who was accused in two similar robberies before being charged with first-degree murder, has been sentenced to 32 years in prison.

The Federal Trade Commission says one out of three robberies nationwide involves the theft of a mobile phone.

The wireless industry's preferred solution is a database assembled in cooperation with the Federal Communications Commission, law enforcement and governments. If someone tries to reactivate a phone that has been reported stolen, the carrier can block it. But police say that effort hasn't made a dent in the problem, partly because so many stolen phones end up overseas. And sophisticated thieves can change the phones' unique identifiers easily.

Schneiderman says his group will use "every tool in our toolbox" to pressure the industry to adopt the kill switch. He's made noises about possible deceptive trade practices, and yes, manufacturers' claims about their phones' security features appear exaggerated in the face of a thriving black market. But shaming the industry could be an effective tool, too.

The demand for stolen smartphones is a threat not just to your privacy and your pocketbook. It's a threat to your safety.