Smartphone 'Kill Switches' Are Set to Deter Thefts

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Manufacturers and carriers reportedly are getting serious about cell phone thefts. Many of the companies producing smartphones have agreed to make it difficult for thieves to re-use stolen handsets.

Apple ( AAPL), Google ( GOOG), HTC, Microsoft ( MSFT), Motorola, Nokia ( NOK), and Samsung, along with major U.S. carriers, will be working with local law enforcement agencies to include what could be termed "kill switch" functions into future smartphones and tablets.

According to a Re/code report, the new safeguards should be in place by the summer of 2015.

The idea is to include special software and features which allow affected users to remotely wipe all data from an affected device. Theft victims could then "brick" those products so they couldn't be reactivated. Under the new plan, recovered phones and tablets could be restored if and when found by authorities.

Apple already includes new anti-theft software in its latest mobile operating system. iOS 7 has a feature called "Activation Lock" that prevents reactivation of lost and stolen devices.

Apple shares were losing 0.16% to $517.14 in early New York trading on Wednesday.

iPhones, iPads and many Android devices are currently worth hundreds of dollars each on the black market. iPhones, including older models, have been highly prized items in countries where the handsets have been hard to get or too expensive for the majority of cell phone users.

While industry compliance with the new effort is voluntary, several state and local governments are considering mandatory "kill switch" laws. California state Sen. Mark Leno called the industry initiative "inadequate" and said he'll push for stronger "kill switch" legislation in his state.

In New York, so many iPhones are lost and stolen that police have nicknamed the trend "Apple picking." Police have formed a special unit to solve the problem.

For the past two years, New York detectives have been investigating each and every missing iPhone and iPad reported to them. Police forward each missing device's IMEI (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity) number directly to Apple and ask to be informed of the stolen device's new GPS location if it is reactivated.

According to New York Police Department statistics, if the Apple iPhone theft problem was solved New York's overall crime rate would plummet. Last year, police estimated that nearly three-quarters of stolen iPhones and iPads actually reappeared and were in back use within the city within days.

At least one stolen iPad was tracked down to its new home in the Dominican Republic. The NYPD confiscates and returns any recovered stolen/resold devices to their original owners.

In one recently publicized case, two New York muggers accidentally sent "selfies" from a stolen phone directly to police. The photos had been automatically uploaded to the theft victim's photo-sharing account. Authorities said the same pair had been responsible for a string of smartphone muggings.

-- Written by Gary Krakow in New York

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Gary Krakow is TheStreet's Senior Technology Correspondent.

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