Wireless carriers reach new low in customer protection

Major wireless carriers have worked hard to earn the scorn of many subscribers. In fact, they're so bad at keeping customers happy, that earning a top score of C-minus on Consumer Reports' latest annual customer satisfaction survey is considered doing well.

If you think that grade is too high, don't worry. Carriers are striving to do worse and struck pay dirt this week by rejecting Samsung Electronics' antitheft software.

Profits trump safety

In a deal with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, Samsung had developed a so-called kill switch that would have allowed users to remotely turn their phones into a brick. The feature is meant to discourage nasty criminals from robbing people of their smartphones.

New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman estimates that 100 smartphones are lost or stolen every minute nationwide. In New York City, 45 percent of robberies involve a mobile phone and more than half of those crimes involve an iPhone.

These are grim statistics, but they're not enough to sway carriers from giving up a little profit for the safety of customers. Gascon believes AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint rejected the kill switch because they were afraid it would cut into the money they make on selling insurance that covers the cost of lost or stolen phones.

"Corporate profits cannot be allowed to guide decisions that have life-or-death consequences," Gascon told The New York Times.

Indeed, carriers have placed profits above Boonsri Dickinson, who a thug punched in the face and left unconscious on a San Francisco sidewalk in order to get her iPhone.

Carriers' reasoning

Speaking through the industry group CTIA, wireless carriers claim the mechanism used to trigger kill switches could be hijacked by crooks to disable and then take control of phones. This would be terrible for customers, including defense and law enforcement officials.

Instead of kill switches, carriers favor a bill introduced in Congress this month that would make tampering with a phone's unique identification number a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Maybe tougher laws would help, but I doubt they would have helped Dickinson. I also don't buy carrier's kill switch complaints. Apple provides such a feature with the iPhone and I've never heard of a problem.

Technical issues could be worked out, if carriers really wanted to side with law enforcement calling for the kill switch to help prevent people from getting mugged.

Gascon has said he's not through with the carriers.

"We have repeatedly requested that the carriers take steps to protect their customers," he 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."

I hope he really sticks it to them.

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