Mobile companies team to prevent handset theft

Mobile phone operators and handset makers are working together in an international campaign to decrease mobile phone theft.

The initiative aims to allow operators to track stolen handsets and render them useless, even if the handsets are taken abroad. The effort is being led by the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) Association, a global body representing the 600 GSM operators, with participation from companies such as Vodafone Group PLC, Orange SA and T-Mobile Deutschland AG.

The association has already put together the first part of the initiative by establishing a database where more than 25 global operators have agreed to record the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers of stolen handsets, a GSM Association spokesman said Monday.

It is similar to a campaign undertaken by U.K. operators last year called “Immobilise,” in which they track the IMEI numbers of stolen phones in a central database and block calls to those handsets across all national networks.

Operators admit, however, that it is relatively easy for thieves to reprogram the phones and use them despite their blocking efforts. Under the new campaign, however, operators and handset makers are looking into ways to prevent the reprogramming of phones, the GSM spokesman said.

IMEI numbers were not originally intended to be security measures, only to identify devices, and manufacturers have been working for some time to improve their security, said Jeff Suff, chairman of the industry policy group representing handset makers at the European Industry Association for Information Systems, Communication Technologies and Consumer Electronics, or EICTA.

“This is an ongoing process and (handset makers) will continue to spend time and money on it,” he said.

A U.K. representative for Orange confirmed Monday that the mobile operator is participating in the initiative but had no details on how close the group is to preventing handset reprogramming.

Likewise, a representative for Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB said Monday that the company is working with other industry groups to eradicate mobile phone theft, but could not say what the final technological solutions will be.

Mobile phone theft has become a growing problem worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of phones reported stolen each year. In the U.K., for instance, cell phone theft now accounts for almost half of the reported theft on the London Underground, according to police.

While working to prevent theft is clearly in the interest of operators who want happy customers, they also must make sure that measures are in place to unblock the phones if their has been an error or the phone is recovered by its owner, said IDC analyst Paolo Pescatore.

There are a number of safeguards the operators and handset makers can put in place, such as software that tells customers when they reach calling limits, serial numbers on handsets and subscriber identity module(SIM ) card locking, Pescatore said, but it is important that the providers adopt the measures as a group.

The GSM Association also said that it is working with various governments to make the reprogramming of handsets illegal. It is already outlawed in the U.K.

“It’s part of an armory of tools to prevent mobile phone theft,” the GSM spokesman said.

More details of the campaign are expected to be revealed at the 3GSM Global Congress in Cannes, France, later this month, the GSM spokesman said.

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