Making the Case for a Stolen Phone Database

Opportunity theft of mobile devices is a big problem in the United States, and it takes many forms. Some stolen cell phones are simply picked from people’s pockets or otherwise grabbed when the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes crooked employees steal phones from stock, and sometimes people lease phones (so they don’t have a legal title) and then sell them.

Some phones can be blocked by their operators, but fewer than one-third of cell phones stolen in the first few months of 2016 were blocked. The most stolen cell phones in the US during the first quarter of 2016 were the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s, and the Samsung S6. Could a stolen cell phone database help reverse these crime statistics?

Wireless Carriers and Blacklisted iPhones

When a stolen phone is listed in a “blacklist” database, it can’t be activated by any carrier until it is un-blacklisted. Blacklisted phone data can be shared across many international borders to make it harder for people who steal phones to sell them outside their country of origin.

But it isn’t the manufacturer that blacklists stolen phones. Wireless carriers are responsible for doing that. These stolen cell phone databases are based on a phone’s IMEI number, which is uniquely assigned to that device. Not only can carriers lock stolen phones out of a network based on their IMEI number, consumers can check if a pre-owned device they want to buy has been reported as stolen or lost.

Apple Activation Lock as a Theft Deterrent

When iOS 7 came out in 2013, Apple launched its own “Activation Lock” that locks an owner’s Apple ID to their iPhone. What happens is, if someone erases the device, re-activating it requires the Apple ID password, so it has been a good deterrent against theft. And those who buy iPhones (or other Apple mobile devices) used can enter the phone’s IMEI or serial number online to find out whether Activation Lock has been disabled so that the device is ready for a new user. Users can also contact wireless carriers for this information, and it is actually the carrier that has the power to reverse an iPhone Activation Lock.

Checking an IMEI Database

Stolen cell phone

Online IMEI checkers and phone carriers can help you learn if a used phone has been reported stolen.

There are also IMEI checkers online that are certified by the Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CTIA), an international industry group that has helped create the mobile phone database. IMEI checkers that are CTIA-certified are integrated with international databases to help track stolen cell phones across international borders. Any time you buy a used phone from an individual, you should ask for the IMEI and then use an IMEI checker to be confident that you’re not about to buy a stolen cell phone.

Stolen Cell Phone Databases Can’t Do It Alone

A stolen cell phone database is powerful, but it can’t do everything. It’s really only one piece of a complex security puzzle that keeps your phone and other devices safe. Your phone’s manufacturer and your service carrier have safeguards that can help you keep your phone from being stolen, and you should take advantage of these.

Some people also use tracking devices like TrackR to issue separation alerts to prevent you from leaving your device behind on a plane or in a cab, for example. These devices can track your phone, ring it, and tell you when you’re getting closer to or farther away from it. Keeping your phone and other devices secure is a matter of using “layers” of security rather than relying on a single technique to keep them safe.

If you do lose your phone or other device to theft, another step you can take is to list it for free with Stolen911. This creates a digital “fingerprint” for your item and indexes it with the major search engines used by law enforcement agencies and pawn shop owners to check if merchandise that comes into their possession has been reported stolen. If you have any questions about how it works, we encourage you to contact us at any time. We would be more than happy to help you.

By Marc Hinch

A retired Police Investigator specializing in auto theft and fraud, I now work as an Investigator using Stolen 911 to develop leads recovering stolen property across the US and Canada. You can reach me at @heyhinch or @stolen911 on Twitter.