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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Smartphone Makers Pressed to Address Growing Theft Problem

1:16 p.m. | Updated This post was changed to include the name of the company that estimated the total cost of cellphone theft.

Seeking to curb a nationwide increase in smartphone thefts, New York's attorney general and San Francisco's district attorney on Thursday announced an initiative to push the industry to develop technologies that will discourage theft and dry up the market for stolen devices.

The new group, the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative, will include prosecutors, political officials, law enforcement and consumer advocates from over a dozen states. The co-chairmen will be the New York attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, and the San Francisco district attorney, George Gascón.

Mr. Gascón and Mr. Schneiderman were scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon with representatives from Apple, Samsung, Google's Motorola unit and Microsoft, which have about 90 percent of the smartphone market.

“It is totally unacceptable that we have an epidemic of crime that we believe can be eliminated if the technological fixes that we believe are available are put into place,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

The coalition is encouraging manufacturers to equip all smartphones with a “kill switch.” When consumers reported to providers that their cellphone had been stolen, the phone, like a stolen credit card, would be rendered inoperable.

“For the thieves who would steal them,” Mr. Schneiderman said, the phones would be “nothing more than a paperweight.”

The loss and theft of cellphones cost consumers over $30 billion in 2012, according to a recent study by Lookout, a San Francisco mobile security company. About 113 smartphones are lost or stolen each minute in the United States and, according to the Federal Communications Commission, cellphone thefts account for 30 to 40 percent of all robberies nationwide. In New York City, the thefts increased 40 percent last year alone.

“The industry has the moral and the social obligation to fix this problem,” Mr. Gascón said. “There are very few things that can be fixed with a technological solution, and this is one of them.”

Apple said on Monday that its next mobile operating system, iOS7, to be released in the fall, has a new feature called Activation Lock that will help to thwart theft. An Apple representative was not immediately available to comment.

Though he did not specify how the coalition would make manufacturers comply with its demands, Mr. Schneiderman said, “The stakes here are very high and we intend to pursue this with every tool in our toolbox.”