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AT&T, T-Mobile team up to curb smartphone theft

The companies have created a joint database that will stop stolen smartphones from being used on either of their networks.

AT&T and T-Mobile, the two GSM carriers in the U.S., have turned on a database designed to cut back on smartphone theft.

The database went live yesterday and allows either AT&T or T-Mobile to block a device from being used on either network. In order to do that, the companies ban a device's IMEI number -- a unique identifier that tells networks what the device is and who owns it -- and effectively stop it from being able to place calls.

In the past, stolen smartphones were blocked by eliminating the use of a SIM card. However, in the GSM world, a phone can be used with any SIM card. So if a thief stole a device and popped in a new SIM card, it would still work. By targeting the IMEI number, that's no longer the case.

The database initiative was announced in April as a joint plan between the carriers, the wireless industry group CTIA, and the Federal Communications Commission. At that time, the organizations said that the GSM service would be up and running on October 31, followed by a CDMA option for Verizon and Sprint soon after.

All four major carriers are expected to merge their databases a little over a year from now, allowing any of them to turn off devices that have been identified as stolen.

The CTIA yesterday celebrated the database initiative, but cautioned that consumers shouldn't believe it's the final step in protecting them.

"While the GSM and CDMA databases are important, consumers also play a key role in protecting their information and preventing smartphone theft," CTIA CEO Steve Largent said in a statement. "By using passwords or PINs, as well as remote wiping capabilities, consumers can help to dry up the aftermarket for stolen devices.

"Today's average wireless user stores a lot of personal information on a mobile device, such as pictures, video, banking and other sensitive data," he continued. "It's important consumers know that by taking simple precautions, such as downloading a few apps, they can protect their information from unauthorized users."

The CTIA's warning highlights the key driving factors behind smartphone theft. Some steal devices to have the latest and greatest handset without needing to pay for it. Others steal devices to take sensitive data. The database initiative won't solve the latter issue.

(Via IDG News Service)