Smartphones driving violent crime across U.S.

An IDG News Service investigation finds guns and knives are used in a quarter of all robberies of cellphones in San Francisco

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The second meeting, between GascA3n, representatives of the four major carriers, and the CTIA, a Washington-based lobbying group for the telecommunications industry, didn't get far.

"It became very clear to me from the beginning, as the lobbying group took the lead on this, that they felt they had done all they were going to do," he said.

The CTIA disagrees with his assertion.

"I really think it's important for people to know that we recognize this is important for law enforcement," said Guttman-McCabe. But he doesn't support the idea of an electronic kill switch.

"Think of all the times people lose their phone and then find it, and imagine how consumer-unfriendly it would be if the carrier hit a kill switch," he said. "All of a sudden, you have a high-end smartphone that's useless and you have to buy an unsubsidized phone."

For now, the CTIA is sticking to its stolen phone database plan and isn't looking at other possible solutions.

The kill switch wanted by GascA3n would probably not be perfect, but it could help, said Lookout's Mahaffey.

"It would be very difficult to build anything that is impossible to take off a device," he said. "You can make it so difficult that all but the most sophisticated thieves can get around it. As we've seen with jailbreaking, no matter how much effort Apple put in, there will always be a way around it."

For now, the best thing phone users can do is try to avoid having their phones snatched in the first place.

"If you need to talk on your phone, we ask that you just step to the side of a building, put your back against the building, make your phone call or make your text, but then also be aware of what's going on around you. That makes a huge difference," said Officer Dennis Toomer of the San Francisco Police Department. He said most thefts occur because people are texting or talking on phones while walking and not paying attention to their surroundings.

"Day or night, you should always be aware of what's going on around you," he said.

In Washington, D.C., a series of crime-prevention posters show photographs of people using cellphones in public. In the pictures, the cellphones are overlayed with an image of a hundred-dollar bill and the tag line "This is how thieves see you on the street."

Phone users are also encouraged to install tracking software in their handsets. Apple has the Find My iPhone feature, and a number of applications exist for other phones that allow users to remotely track a phone's position and delete data stored on the device. They require the phone to be switched on and connected to a network, but often thieves don't immediately switch off stolen phones.

If a phone is promptly reported stolen, police can sometimes locate the device and the thieves using such applications.

"As with any security, there is no silver bullet, there's no one thing you can do," said Mahaffey. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, we should continue to find better ways to solve these problems."

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon speaks on what he hopes is done about cell phone theft

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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