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T-Mobile vows to go after data 'thieves'

If you use tethering trickery to get hold of more data than you're allowed, T-Mobile says it will track you down and cut you off.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere has declared war against those who game the system to download as much as 2TB of tethered data each month.

Josh Miller/CNET

T-Mobile customers, if you're gobbling up more than your fair share of tethered data, beware. The company has its sights set on you.

The carrier's always outspoken CEO, John Legere, has lashed out at "hackers" who grab more than their allotted amount of tethered data. In a blog post published on Sunday, Legere pointed his finger at a tiny percentage of the carrier's 59 million subscribers who use certain workarounds to go beyond the monthly limit on high-speed tethered data, some swiping as much as 2 terabytes per month.

But wait: T-Mobile boasts that it offers unlimited data. Why is Legere going after these people?

Although T-Mobile does offer unlimited data plans, there's still a limit as to how much high-speed data you can slice off for tethering -- a technique that lets you use your smartphone's cellular connection as a hotspot to provide Internet access to other devices, such as your tablet or laptop. T-Mobile's standard unlimited 4G LTE smartphone plan includes 7 GB of high-speed hotspot data. Go beyond that, and your hotspot data is bumped down to a lower speed.

The people being targeted are using sneaky means to grab more tethered data, such as "downloading apps that hide their tether usage, rooting their phones, writing code to mask their activity," Legere said. Those tricks make it seem as if the data is being consumed by a person's mobile phone, not by tethered devices. That allows such customers to grab generous amounts of tethered data as possible without being dropped to a lower speed. Further, subscribers who sneak around the system to eat up huge chunks of data can potentially affect the network performance for other T-Mobile customers.

"These aren't naive amateurs," Legere said, "they are clever hackers who are willfully stealing for their own selfish gain."

OK, so what can such "clever hackers" expect now that T-Mobile has declared war?

Legere said that starting Monday, the company is going after every "thief," starting with 3,000 people who know what they're doing. In an FAQ outlining the carrier's policy, T-Mobile said it now has technology that can detect these tethering-data abusers. The company will start by warning such subscribers about their actions. If they fail to get the message, they'll be cut off from their unlimited 4G LTE smartphone data plan and moved to an entry-level limited LTE plan.

"I'm not in this business to play data cop, but we started this wireless revolution to change the industry for good and to fight for consumers," Legere declared. "I won't let a few thieves ruin things for anyone else."