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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 8, 2013 at 10:00 PM

With phone thefts up, we need to lock down

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Talking to a man named Hugh Lee last week convinced me to do something I never thought I would — password-protect my phone.

Lee, 33, had his phone stolen two weeks ago. He left his things in a courtside bundle while he shot hoops with friends at a North Seattle community center. When he came to collect them, his wallet and keys were there, but his phone — a Samsung Focus S — was gone. That night became a mad, anxiety-ridden dash to cancel accounts, change passwords and hope against hope the thief was after his device, not some exposed thread of his digital life.

Until Lee got home and opened his laptop, whoever took his phone had access to everything.

“How do I know this is you?” his wife asked him when he chatted with her on Facebook from work the following day. It was a good question.

A rise in cellphone-related robberies and thefts is making Lee’s story a familiar one. A recent Harris Poll revealed that one out of every 10 mobile phone users has had a phone stolen at some point. It’s not always sneaky.

A few friends in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — where 42 percent of all robberies in 2012 involved cellphones — have had them snatched right out of their hands, usually on subways. A close friend in Seattle last month had hers robbed at gunpoint, along with her wallet and keys.

Seattle police don’t track cellphone thefts and robberies, which is too bad, but they know something’s up. Sgt. Sean Whitcomb called the crimes a “huge” priority.

One day last month a man approached a University of Washington student in broad daylight and asked for the time. When she showed it to him on her phone, the man grabbed it and took off.

The spike in cellphone-related crimes is sometimes compared to the rash of car-stereo thefts in the ’90s, largely because it, too, was motivated by high resale value on the black market. A used iPhone can get you $500 or more if sold abroad.

Car stereos, though, are car stereos. Our phones, for many of us, might as well be another limb. A majority of Americans own smartphones now, for the first time, according to a Pew Internet & American Life survey released this month. We stuff them with everything we need to live fast, connected, convenient lives and rely on them for our ability to do so.

Even if you back up all your phone’s data in the cloud and put it under every lock and key, you can find that losing your phone is a huge disruptive event. For Lee, whose phone, like mine, was cracked wide open, it was a drop-everything emergency. He’d rather have lost his wallet, he told me. I knew exactly what he meant.

Was his personal information what thieves were after? It’s unlikely. Phone thieves make a much easier buck on just the device. The used-smartphone market is expected to reach $5 billion by 2015, according to Gazelle, a company that buys used smartphones online.

Resellers know the value attracts the crime: ecoATM, a company that’s making a killing on kiosks that collect old phones for cash, requires a license and fingerprint from sellers, registers collected devices and holds devices for 30 days in case they’re declared stolen.

If you sell overseas, though, you bypass all kinds of security checks. A national database of stolen phones was created last year by carriers and law enforcement to prevent stolen phones from being reactivated. But take stolen phones abroad and the database has no bite. Change the phone’s IMEI, its identification number, and it’s reborn with a clean record.

Law-enforcement officials in New York and San Francisco are pressuring carriers to create a technological solution to the problem. Make it so stolen phones can be definitively and permanently shut down and no one will steal them anymore, goes the theory. Carriers so far have shown little interest.

Lee, the man who lost his phone while playing basketball, tried to find it using a phone-locating feature, but that didn’t work. Eventually he asked AT&T to deactivate it, erasing all his data and giving it up for good.

Though in all likelihood his phone was sold off without anyone skulking in his email or Facebook, the doubt nagged at him. When a friend lent him a loaner phone, he put a password lock on it. Like so many things in technology, it’s not a guaranteed safeguard. But next time someone steals his device, he’ll have more reason to hope it was just his device.

A four-digit combination now stands between me and my apps every time I turn on the screen. It’s annoying. It’s inconvenient. But heck. It’s probably worth it.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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