Canada needs a registry of stolen cellphones

September 30 2012 by Ellen Roseman

There’s an epidemic of cellphone theft in Canada. A Toronto MP, Mike Sullivan, wants to set up a national registry, so that thieves can’t activate a stolen handset on another carrier’s network.

Canada’s telecom regulator sent a letter to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, asking for statistics on mobile phone thefts in Canada. It cited data that one in three robberies in the United States involves a mobile phone.

It also asked the CWTA what measures it was taking to protect consumers from being victims of mobile phone theft. This is important since the industry is beginning to introduce mobile devices that will act as “digital wallets.”

On Aug. 13, the CWTA sent a response that didn’t seem to answer the CRTC’s questions in a meaningful way:

– CWTA has no statistics on the number of devices reported lost or stolen to its members. Such numbers are considered “competitive, proprietary and confidential.”

– CWTA recognizes that it’s important to have a statistical database to see the scope of the problem. It hopes to produce one by late 2012 or early 2013.

– CWTA and its members hope to implement an industry-wide public awareness campaign on protecting consumers from phone theft by late 2012 or early 2013.

It also talked about how the international market for stolen cellphones makes it difficult to reduce theft statistics:

Handset theft is still significant in the countries (the UK and Australia in particular) with the most comprehensive theft-reduction measures.

While a particular jurisdiction can reduce the market for stolen phones within its own borders, it cannot do so in other parts of the world. There is significant global demand for black market cell phones.

On Sept. 28, the CRTC fired back against the telecom industry’s reluctance to combat a serious problem. Check out the testiness of the regulator’s response.

– Two months should be enough for CWTA to produce statistics on cellphone thefts by province. A timeframe of late 2012 or early 2013 is not reasonable.

– While CWTA has a working group on handset security, it needs to say who are the members, how often they meet, what resources are available and whether or not law enforcement officials are in the group to ensure a holistic approach to the problem.

– Why can’t CWTA start a public education campaign before 2013? After all, it set up the handset security working group in spring 2012.

– If it takes too long and costs too much to set up a Canadian registry of stolen cellphones, why can’t CWTA members join an international database that already exists? Let’s see a detailed explanation of the costs and barriers to joining.

The letter ends with a threat:

It should be noted that if the Commission is not satisfied by the response of the Canadian wireless industry to this issue, the Commission will investigate what further regulatory action needs to be taken to provide the necessary tools to help consumers in this regard.

It’s great to see the CRTC pushing the telecom industry to act more quickly to protect consumers, given the headlong rush to create mobile commerce through cellphones.

Here’s a sign that the CRTC wants change: It told me about this letter on Friday, Sept. 28, even before posting it on the CRTC website.

Do you have any thoughts about cellphone theft? Has it happened to you? How were you treated by your carrier?

The CRTC didn’t mention the troubling violence that often accompanies street robberies and mugging. Check out this Toronto Star story, which talks about high school students getting beaten for their phones.

The thefts aren’t restricted to schools. One woman had her phone grabbed from her hand as she spoke on it. And most troubling of all, a man in a car accident had his phone stolen by a passerby, who had the nerve to offer to use it and call 911.

4 comments

  1. Promod Sharma || actuary | advocate | blogger

    Sep 30 2012

    A registry won’t hurt.

    With so much confidential information on smartphones, theft poses a big risk. Using a password is a necessary precaution but what happens if the theft occurs before the auto-locking takes place?

    I’d like to see some way to wipe out data remotely.

  2. Dave Ings

    Oct 1 2012

    As long as the cost is proportionate to the crime, I think crime prevention plans are in general a good idea. Whether that’s true here I’m not sure – smartphones will only get cheaper and cheaper and soon enough probably won’t be worth stealing.

    To answer Promod’s question – iPhones are remotely lockable and wipeable. So there actually isn’t that much risk, even if you don’t use a lock passcode. I’m not an Android user so I’m not sure, but I believe you need to install a 3rd party app to achieve the equivalent capability. Someone may correct me about that.

  3. Ellen Roseman

    Oct 5 2012

    Great story in this week’s Globe and Mail.

    CRTC cracks down on iCrime – and carriers

    Tuesday, October 2, 2012

    RITA TRICHUR

    TELECOM REPORTER

    Wireless carriers and the federal telecommunications regulator are heading toward a showdown over the rise of mobile-device theft.

    The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is warning that it is prepared to use regulation to force the wireless industry into setting up a national registry of stolen smartphones and tablets, as more and more consumers fall victim to so-called “iCrime.”

    The CRTC, which says it will explore regulatory options if it remains unsatisfied by the industry’s response up until Nov. 30, joins a growing chorus of critics, including police and politicians, who argue wireless firms are failing to do their part to protect consumers. Carriers in the U.S. are moving to set up a similar database to prevent stolen devices from being reactivated – and reducing the incentive for theft.

    The commission’s tougher stance on setting up a registry is the latest sign it is adopting an increasingly pro-consumer stance under new chairman Jean-Pierre Blais. In addition to delivering a pair of consumer-friendly TV decisions since taking the helm in mid-June, he announced the creation of a chief consumer officer – a new role that Barbara Motzney began on Monday.

    Canadians are among the world’s heaviest smartphone users, and anecdotal evidence suggests the iCrime problem is becoming more widespread.

    Police have been warning about a surge of violent robberies involving cellphones in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.

    According to one Toronto city councillor, cellphone robberies in that city have spiked in recent years, numbering 1,800 cases in 2011. There are also other estimates that suggest such thefts increased by 37 per cent in Vancouver between 2010 and 2011. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission estimates that one out of three robberies in the country involves the theft of a mobile phone.

    The CRTC is critical of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association’s claim that it cannot provide comprehensive statistics on the number of lost and stolen devices. The CWTA has previously said that carriers collect those data in “differing degrees of detail” and consider such information “competitive, proprietary and confidential.”

    In a letter to the CWTA on Friday, CRTC secretary-general John Traversy wrote “It should be noted that if the Commission is not satisfied by the response of the Canadian wireless industry to this issue, the Commission will investigate what further regulatory action needs to be taken to provide the necessary tools to help consumers in this regard.”

    That strongly worded correspondence was meant to remind the industry that the CRTC has previously obliged carrier co-operation through regulation in the past – most notably on thorny issues like e911 and wireless number portability. Mr. Traversy also stated the CRTC “is not convinced” by the industry’s arguments about the shortcomings of an existing global registry for stolen devices. As a result, it is demanding a “detailed explanation of the costs and barriers” that carriers would face to join it.

    For its part, the CWTA has previously argued that creating a national database could cost millions and that such a registry would do little to prevent stolen devices from being activated in other countries. It has pro-actively created an industry working group that includes carriers and device manufacturers to examine security solutions.

    “The wireless industry, like the CRTC, takes the issue of lost and stolen mobile devices very seriously,” CWTA spokesman Marc Choma said in an e-mailed statement. He added: “As I hope the CRTC, law enforcement and Canadian consumers can appreciate, creating effective Canadian and/or international solutions to combat mobile device theft is not a quick fix. It is something that will require a great deal of co-ordinated effort and resources from all of Canada’s wireless service providers and handset manufacturers. We hope to be able to provide an update on the industry’s plan of action in the near future.”

    *****

    CRTC’S SHIFT IN FOCUS

    Five things CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais has done to make consumers a priority:

    1. After his term began in June, Mr. Blais chose to meet with consumer groups, including the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Option consommateurs, before he met with the industry players.

    2. In July, the CRTC pulled the plug on the Local Programming Improvement Fund, saving most consumers about $25 a year on their cable and satellite bills.

    3. Also in July, the commission issued a decision that lays the groundwork for pick-and-pay TV packages.

    4. In August, the CRTC announced the appointment of Barbara Motzney to the new role of chief consumer officer; she started that job on Monday.

    5. During hearings in September on the proposed BCE-Astral deal, Mr. Blais took the unprecedented step of reading consumer complaints about Bell’s customer service into the proceedings.

    Rita Trichur

  4. tmorgan

    Oct 24 2012

    Rogers and other providers have the ability to see IMEI Number of Mobile Phones on their network.

    My response from Rogers on reporting my stolen phone was that “we cannot locate or block or data wipe your lost hardware” which, of course, is not true.

    I provided the IMEI, which they could use to disable/wipe my stolen smartphone but as they say at their web site: “Rogers may, in its sole discretion, but shall have no obligation to permanently block your initial Device, preventing it from ever being used on the Rogers network.”

    Compare this to AT&T in the US telling customers (who provided proof of ownership) where their phone is.

    Why does Rogers protect the privacy of thieves?

    There has to be a ‘shared registry’ of stolen phones in order to deter organized theft. Just on general principle. I object to providers allowing anyone to make use of my stolen property.

    CRTC 2012-557 ‘mandatory code for mobile wireless services’ should be addressing this issue, in my opinion. The USA and UK are more tough and organized dealing with this type of crime.

    Blocking phones is not enough, since it will just result in the stolen phone being sold overseas. After providing proof of mobile device ownership, owners should be provided with the location of their property if it’s currently activated by a Canadian provider.

    In my opinion, failing to use their ability to listen in or disrupt on calls, locate phones, etc., makes the provider an accomplice to the theft. I see nothing wrong with having an operator interrupt a phone call in which one party is using a stolen device and instructing them to turn it into the nearest police station or service provider store.

    The most sensible solution is for the the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association to join the USA’s database in order to prevent stolen phones from being enabled across the border.

Leave a comment