Smartphone theft, in the words of lawmakers grappling with the crime, has reached "epidemic" levels. In the last few years, the oftentimes violent act has been quickly eclipsing all other forms of robbery in the US thanks to the lucrative secondhand market for stolen smartphones.
That's precisely why carriers Verizon and US Cellular have teamed up with Samsung to ensure that the Android device maker's Find My Mobile and Reactivation Lock antitheft features are now preloaded -- in other words already installed out of the box -- on its new Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone. The Korean company's flagship smartphone became available for preorder on Verizon's Web site Friday with an official launch date of April 11.
Find My Mobile -- similar to Apple's Find My iPhone service that has aided authorities in tracking down stolen iOS devices -- is an online service that can track and lock a stolen phone, wipe it clean, and alert the owner when a different SIM card is inserted. Reactivation Lock is a feature that detects abnormal attempts to reset a device to factory settings by prompting one to login even after a successful reset.
In most cases, these services must be either downloaded from their respective app stores and synced up with one's account through the Web or proactively turned on in settings and kept activated to remain effective.
Lawmakers are putting pressure on handset makers and carriers to eliminate one, if not more, of these hurdles on the user end, thereby attempting to disincentivize criminals from committing smartphone theft. In this case, the features are now available on the Galaxy S5 out of the box and can be activated for free, but are still opt-in measures.
"While we are concerned that consumers will need to opt-in to the system, thereby limiting the ubiquity and effectiveness of the solution, the fact that Samsung and these carriers have agreed to work together to make Find My Mobile and Reactivation Lock available sends a strong message that all participants in this industry can indeed work together to make their customers safer," wrote San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a joint statement released Friday.
Gascón and Scheniderman are two of the leading state regulators aggressively pushing for more antitheft measures around the smartphone market. Smartphone theft now makes up 30 to 40 percent of robberies in the country, according to the Federal Trade Commission -- with a rate as high as 66 percent in San Francisco -- and affected 1.6 million Americans in 2012 alone, Consumer Reports said.
To curb those rates, Gascón and Scheniderman have worked together to bolster the efforts of the Secure Our Smartphone initiative -- a nationwide coalition of lawmakers, police chiefs, and public safety activists -- that was launched earlier this year and seeks out ways to create a more secure atmosphere that would hopefully eliminate incentives to smartphone theft.
Chief among those efforts is a "kill switch" legislation in California, known formally as Senate Bill 962, that would mandate the implementation of a opt-out security feature in smartphones that would make them inoperable if stolen, a power that would be handed over to city and state governments.
Gascón said the bill was a response to push back from carriers over taking the very action -- preloading Samsung's antitheft apps -- that Verizon and US Cellular just performed. Gascón has publicly questioned these carriers' past resistance, and the continued resistance from other carriers, as an effort driven by profit and relationships with insurance companies.
"I'm not implying that the industry is solely motivated by profit, but one certainly has to ask why" there is resistance, Gascón said at San Francisco City Hall when he introduced the bill in February. In this case, however, Samsung and two of its carrier partners have taken a step to address the concerns proactively.
"More work needs to be done to ensure these solutions come standard on every device, but these companies have done the right thing by responding to our call for action. No family should lose a mother, a father, a son or a daughter for their phone. Manufacturers and carriers need to put public safety before corporate profits and stop this violent epidemic, which has put millions of smartphone users at risk," Gascón and Scheniderman concluded.