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Harsher penalties are needed to hang-up on would-be cell phone thieves, says senator

WHITE PLAINS - U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D, NY) announced legislation that will make it a federal crime to tamper with the unique identification number of a cell phone by imposing a multi-year criminal penalty, in the wake of a dramatic spike in cell phone thefts in Westchester County, where the senator discussed his bill. 

In White Plains, for example, cell thefts have jumped 35% in just the last year, from approximately 190 in 2012 to 260 in 2013.  Since 2012, cell phone thefts are up 41% in Greenburgh; having risen from 270 thefts in 2012 to 380 in 2013. Throughout Westchester County, the County Police Department reports that cell phones were involved in roughly 38 percent of all thefts, up from 33 percent last year.  Last year, Schumer and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a new effort along with major cell phone carriers that would create a stolen cell phone registry to track unique cell phone identification numbers. The International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers allow cell phone companies to permanently disable stolen cell phones once they are reported stolen. The database can only work if thieves don’t tamper with these IMEI numbers to reactive the phone. Schumer highlighted the urgency of his bill, which will add teeth to the cell phone registry, which just got up and running late last year.

“These crimes of stolen smart phones are rapidly rising in the White Plains area and we must make it clear that if you alter the identification number of a stolen cell phone, you will face serious consequences,” said Schumer. “This legislation will make it a federal crime to tamper with a phone’s identification number, putting teeth into our efforts to build a national stolen cell phone registry, and deter cell phone theft in the future.  Bolstering the national stolen phone database that just got up and running at the end of last year with my legislation means we will finally have the tools to hang-up on would-be smart phone thieves who now prey on Westchester County residents.”

Tim McKone, AT&T Executive Vice President of Federal Relations said, “AT&T applauds Senator Schumer for reintroducing legislation to help deter the theft of wireless communications devices.  The Mobile Device Theft Deterrence Act is a critical component in helping law enforcement and wireless carriers address the growing issue of stolen devices.  In 2012, we launched a website to help educate our customers on how to protect their wireless devices, and we created a stolen phone database which prevents devices reported stolen by our customers from working on our network. We thank the Senator for his tireless efforts in this area and we look forward to working with him and his colleagues as this legislation moves forward.”

Before last year’s historic agreement with the FCC and major cell phone carriers, when a cell phones was reported stolen, many American cell phone companies only deactivated the phone’s “SIM” card. The “SIM” card is simply the account data storage component of the device. While deactivation of a SIM card does not allow for the device to be used with existing data and account information, SIM cards are easily removed and replaced, allowing stolen phones to be resold on the black market. All one needs to do is put a different SIM card into the device. Last year, at Schumer’s urging, the industry agreed to work together with the FCC and establish a nationwide, interconnected database that will allow the carriers to share information and the unique identification IMEI number on stolen cell phones across networks, and ban the use of cell phones reported stolen.

Schumer’s bill, the Mobile Device Theft Deterrence Act is a critical piece of the plan because it will add criminal penalties of up to five years in jail for tampering with cell phones in order to circumvent the service ban on a stolen phone. The bill has the full support of CTIA, the Wireless Association, who have joined forces with Schumer and the FCC to implement the national database. Schumer said that his legislation would treat cell phones like cars: it is illegal to tamper with a car’s unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which is what makes it very hard to resell a stolen car, and has helped limit car theft.