A friend was walking down a Manhattan sidewalk a year ago, staring into his iPhone in the now-ubiquitous, data-engrossed trance of a smartphone user.
A group of teenagers walked up to him. One gently plucked the phone from my friend's hand and jogged away, leaving him blinking, thinking for a brief moment that it was all just a joke.
It wasn't. That's the last he saw of that gizmo.
The CTIA, a wireless industry trade group, on Wednesday moved to stop smartphone thieves like those teenagers in their tracks by switching on databases to block stolen phones from being used on the four major US networks: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint.
The initiative was first announced in April, when the US Federal Communications Commission teamed with police chiefs from major US cities and CTIA representatives to announce a database that would put a lid on the burgeoning number of smartphone thefts.
As MSNBC reported in October, New York City Police say that more than 40 percent of all robberies now involve cellphones.
As goes New York, so goes the rest of the country. Cellphone thefts in Los Angeles are up 27 percent over last year. Transit system authorities in cities such as Boston and San Francisco are launching ad campaigns that seek to alert riders of the danger of thieves preying on those who casually use, and get engrossed in, their phones while in public.
Carriers have up until now blocked SIM cards on stolen phones, preventing unauthorized calls from going through.
That was easy to get around: thieves would simply install a new SIM card and sell the phone on the second-hand market.
The new databases will instead block the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, a unique identifier that stays in the phone regardless of the SIM card being used.
Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, told IDG that the goal is to shut down the market for stolen phones:
"The goal is to not only protect the consumer by cancelling the service, but by ultimately protecting the consumer by drying up the after market for stolen phones."
The CTIA says that as of Wednesday, AT&T and T-Mobile will offer a joint database, given that they use more or less the same network technology - GSM - and their handsets can easily be used on each other's networks.
Verizon and Sprint use a different network technology, CDMA, and will offer their own databases.
Guttman-McCabe told IDG that by the end of November 2013, the four carriers will combine their databases so that "the vast majority" of US cellphone users will be covered.
He also said that smaller carriers such as Nex-Tech and Cellcom also have plans to implement the database, while work is under way to link the US database with an international database maintained by the GSM Association, to prevent stolen phones from being shipped overseas and used on foreign networks.
When it comes to losing something important, beyond the cost of the phone itself is the sensitive data stored on that phone, which can include contacts, photos, music, email, bank account numbers, and stored passwords.
Being able to prevent a stolen phone from being used to place unauthorized calls is a good step, but as the CTIA emphasized, consumers should still take steps to protect their phone data.
CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent said in a statement:
"While the GSM and CDMA databases are important, consumers also play a key role in protecting their information and preventing smartphone theft. By using passwords or PINs, as well as remote wiping capabilities, consumers can help to dry up the aftermarket for stolen devices. Today’s average wireless user stores a lot of personal information on a mobile device, such as pictures, video, banking and other sensitive data. It's important consumers know that by taking simple precautions, such as downloading a few apps, they can protect their information from unauthorized users."
The organization has guidelines here on how to prevent smartphone theft and protect personal information.
One thing I'd add to the CTIA's guidelines is to know your phone's identification number, given that your carrier may not have the number in their files.
The IMEI might be located on the box the phone came in, or you can find it by removing the cover from the back of the phone and taking out the battery. The number should be printed on the inside compartment.
In many cases you can obtain your IMEI by dialing *#06#. Vendors such as Apple have provided advice on how to find out the IMEI number on their phones.
That won't do you much good if the phone has already been stolen, though, so it's a good idea to write the number down or otherwise store it somehow.
Hopefully, soon phone thieves will only manage to walk away with a useless brick, if all goes according to plan.
Pickpocketing a mobile phone image from Shutterstock.