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iPhone thefts get walloped by kill feature, officials say

Thefts of Apple's smartphone have plummeted in San Francisco, New York and London following the debut of the company's Activation Lock feature in fall 2013.

If your iPhone gets stolen and Find My Phone has been deactivated, Activation Lock will prevent it from being re-used by a different Apple account. James Martin/CNET

A kill feature that renders a smartphone useless if stolen appears to be taking a bite out of crime.

The volume of stolen iPhones dropped by 25 percent in New York, by 40 percent in San Francisco and by 50 percent in London over the 12 months after Apple added an Activation Lock to its smartphones, Reuters reported Wednesday, citing announcements from officials from all three cities.

Introduced with iOS 7 in September 2013, Activation Lock requires your Apple ID and password before someone can erase and reactivate your device, rendering your iPhone or iPad useless to thieves who want to resell it for a quick buck. A similar feature in Android 5.0 Lollipop known as Factory Reset Protection requires the owner's Google password in order to wipe the phone. Law enforcement officials had long been urging Apple and other device makers to implement such a "kill switch" to help crack down on the use of stolen phones.

See also: Confessions of a smartphone thief

London Mayor Boris Johnson, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman were among those who had been urging mobile device makers to install kill switches as a way to cut down on thefts. Some US states already require that smartphones come equipped with kill features.

California's law won't go into effect until July 1, however, smartphone theft has fallen as device makers have already been implementing the feature, according to Gascon.

"The wireless industry continues to roll out sophisticated new features, but preventing their own customers from being the target of a violent crime is the coolest technology they can bring to market," Gascon told Reuters.

Some mobile manufacturers have been reticent about kill switches becoming mandated by law, arguing that such features leave phones more vulnerable to hacking. Both Google and Microsoft initially opposed California's legislation but later came to support it. Device makers changed their position last year when the CTIA, a trade organization that represents the telecom companies, promised to make antitheft software standard on all phones from participating device makers and carriers, including Apple, Samsung, Google, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

The next step for lawmakers is to convince companies to enable the protection by default. Apple's Activation Lock is turned on by default, but similar features on other smartphones require the user to opt-in. Gascon, Johnson and Schneiderman have urged all device makers to turn on the feature by default, Reuters noted.

Apple did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment.