Phone Carriers Reject Anti-Theft Plan So They Can Sell More Insurance

Remember the idea to prevent cell phone theft with a so-called kill switch that would disable the device remotely after it had been stolen? Well, lawmakers are having the darnedest time getting a policy in place, in part due to carriers. Let me rephrase that: due to greedy carriers.

George Gascón, San Francisco's District Attorney, has been working hard to get cell phone manufacturers to install the kill switch software on their telephones. However, carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile who must approve the measure haven't been cooperating, and he just found out why. Gascón recently told The New York Times that he came across an email thread between Samsung and the carriers suggesting that the carriers don't want the anti-theft software because it "would eat into the profit they make from the insurance programs many consumers buy to cover lost or stolen phones."

Let me rephrase that: Carriers don't want to give you anti-theft tools because they're making too much money on stolen phones. Actually, it's the fear of stolen phones that prompts people to pay large sums of money for insurance, money that then pads the carriers' earning statements. So carriers are making money off of their customers' fear. How awesome is that?!

It's not awesome. It's insulting.

To be fair, cell phone theft is a hard problem to solve. According to Bloomberg News, about 113 cell phones are stolen every minute in the United States, and some of those thefts end in tragic deaths as was the case with Megan Boken, a 23-year-old killed for her phone in St. Louis last year. The kill switch—unfortunate name, I realize—is one of many such ideas that have been floated over the course of the past few years. Law enforcement agencies and the Federal Communications Commission have planned a database to track stolen phones but, as critics point out, many stolen phones end up overseas, where the database is useless.

The kill switch isn't a perfect plan either. There's always the chance that a thief could turn off the phone and swap out the SIM card before the kill switch could be activated. There's also, of course, the possibility that the kill switch could be abused and used to deactivate phones that aren't meant to be deactivated at all. This could be especially problematic if those phones belonged to police officers or members of the military, says CTIA, the trade group that represents carriers.

Even still, Gascón and others say that the carriers are resisting anti-theft measures for all the wrong reasons. "We have repeatedly requested that the carriers take steps to protect their customers," Gascón told The Times. "We are now evaluating what course of action will be necessary to force them to prioritize the safety of their customers over additional money in their pockets." In the meantime, phones are going to keep getting stolen and—no thanks to the carriers—it's up to the customers to get them back. [NYTimes, Bloomberg]

Image via Shutterstock / Ammentorp Photography