Where have all the cell phones gone?

Press Any Key

Sit down at a meeting, and there will likely be at least one cell phone on the table per person – except for the person who had their phone stolen, or who left it in a taxi.

I came across some surprising numbers during a recent trip to the U.K. The British Home Office reported that there were 330,000 phone thefts reported in 2000-2001. They consider the real number to be closer to 700,000 because many victims don’t even bother reporting the theft.

The problem with trying to track down cell phones is that they are small, easily concealed and once the thief has initiated a new number, difficult to trace. True, carriers are very good at forgiving charges the thieves incur, but the inconvenience to both the victim and the carrier is time – and time equals money. And you wonder why the phone companies want to raise their rates?

Theft isn’t the only problem. According to London’s Metropolitan Police, between March and August 2000, 62,000 cell phones, 13,000 PDAs and 2,900 laptops were left in London taxis. I wonder what the numbers are for Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver? I’ll bet they’re comparable. For equipment that is theoretically critical to a person’s job, essential for the efficient conduct of business and probably a major part of a person’s social life, it’s hard to understand how loss rates could be so high.

People at airports are also very careless with their essential business equipment. Again, according to numbers from the Metropolitan Police in London, there are approximately 11,000 cell phones per year lost at Heathrow airport. One can excuse some of those as having fallen out of a half-open briefcase, but I suspect most of them were placed on a nearby seat and not picked up when the flight was called. Regardless, that’s pretty casual treatment for a piece of essential business gear.

Subscriber Identity Modules (SIM) – smart cards that ship with every GSM mobile phone, and contain the user’s identity, authentication and contract with his or her provider, allowing them to swap units – are part of the solution, although not effective when faced with a savvy thief. Each phone’s International Mobile Equipment Identity number is useful, but it’s not foolproof. IMEI numbers can be edited by the technically knowledgeable thief.

Another solution could be as simple as attaching a thin wire to a cell phone at one end and a PDA at the other. Just slide the cell phone with the wire attached up one sleeve of your suit jacket, across the back and then down the other sleeve. It’s just like the wooly mittens your mum used to tog you up with when you went to school in the winter.

One final note on mobile phones: Freeplay, the folks that brought you the wind-up radio, flashlight, spotlight and various combinations of those, now has a cell phone charger. For UK