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With thefts rising, smart phones need a ‘kill switch’

The feature would let you deactivate your stolen or lost phone so it’s useless to others

Published: April 18, 2014 04:50 PM

Even as smart phones continue to grow ever more sophisticated, they’re not immune to a very mundane problem: theft. About 3.1 million smart phones were stolen in the U.S. last year, Consumer Reports has projected. That’s nearly twice the number of thefts we projected for the previous year. In major cities across the U.S., police have reported as much as 40 percent of all robberies involve smart phones and other handheld electronics, according to the FCC.

Replacing a stolen phone is expensive, but your problems don’t stop there. When your sensitive information—passwords, credit card numbers, and more—falls into the wrong hands, it puts you at serious risk of identity theft.

The wireless industry trade group CTIA recently announced voluntary commitments to provide antitheft tools for smart phones, starting next year. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, believes the industry must take further steps to deter criminals and protect consumers.

Learn more about how to protect your phone from theft or loss, and what to do if you recover it.

Every smart phone should be required to have a “kill switch” that lets you wipe personal information off your device. What’s more, you should be able to disable your phone remotely to make it inoperable to thieves. And if you’re fortunate enough to get your phone back, it should be easy to reactivate. Some smart phones already have technology that gives you greater control over a stolen device. Law-enforcement officials, district attorneys, and safety advocates agree that these features ought to be universally available.

We’re advocating for bills in Congress introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) to mandate free kill switches for new smart phones. The lawmakers point out that smart phone theft costs consumers more than $30 billion annually, and these crimes can be violent. This legislation would go a long way toward removing the incentives for criminals to target your phone, and help crack down on the secondary market where stolen devices are sold.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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