All four major US wireless carriers enable stolen cellphone database

All four major US wireless carriers enable stolen cellphone database

Summary: Smartphones are expensive if you need to replace a stolen one and today we finally see the four major US wireless carriers launch a joint database that will allow them to track and disable phones.


If you have AT&T and T-Mobile, it was easy for a thief to steal your phone and then pop the SIM out to resell it to someone else. Sprint and Verizon are more difficult, unless they are new LTE devices with a SIM, because they are provisioned through the carrier. Thankfully, that all changes now as these four major carriers turned on the joint database to track the IMEI numbers of cell phones, which is specific to the hardware and not the SIM card.

While this won't likely lead to the recovery of your stolen phone, the hope is that by having the ability to prevent phones from being activated with a stolen IMEI the stolen cell phone market will dry up and die. There may still be a market for stolen phones by selling overseas, but in most cases we see the modern smartphone launch first overseas before the US so that may not be much of a market either.

I have spent thousands on smartphones and welcome this new initiative from the CTIA and am pleased that at least the four major US wirless carriers are on board.

Topics: Mobility, Smartphones, Telcos, AT&T, Verizon

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  • About time

    We consumers are not all wealthy enough to buy smartphones whenever we want one to replace one that is stolen, broken, etc. They are very expensive especially to those of us who have a job that pays a living wage but not enough to buy items like those outright and the discount for the two year contract helps but we have to wait to get another if something happens to the one we have. Having a way to at least strike back at the thief is some degree of solace to us.
    • iPhones

      I am considering to go with an inexpensive windows phone next time I buy a new phone. I don't want to own an expensive phone that I have to be careful with. If the phone is in the €100-$150 range it does not feel too bad if the dog chew on it or if some children drop it.
      • Or

        You could spend an extra 30-50 bucks depending on the source and get an Otterbox Defender case for those times when you allow children to use your iPhone.
        • Orrr....

          Buy phone insurance for like $2-$5 a month and doesnt matter what happens to the phone. I use prepaid providers like boost but use my exspensive sprint new release phones on it which I buy out right on ebay usually for about half of full reatil so about $250 on average for a phone they charge $500 for without contract.I go online insure it and if it breaks I get another one.
  • About time

    This should have happened at the beginning. It will make stealing a cell phone less profitable. However, Apple has made it more likely that the criminals will be caught with Find My iPhone. There have been 3 cases in my local area in the last month where felons were apprehended because they stole iPhones in burglaries, or in one case, an abduction. In each case, the phones were tracked, and police recovered the stolen property, and arrested the perpetrators. Yes, the cell companies can track phones, but not with the precision that Find My iPhone allows, or as easily since the tracking is done by a family member, so the police don't that to unravel a mile of red tape to get the information.
    • It's still a good thing

      I heard a report where in France, once the carriers activated their database, smartphone thefts were reduced by 40%.
      Now if only the Canadian carriers can stop dragging their feet and get on board.
  • I dream...

    I wish there was a system for the customers to verify the used fon that they buy are stolen or not. I buy fons from Craigslist and Ebay and one time the iphone 4 i got was a stolen one , fortunately its not hard locked , so i am able to use it but cant get it unlocked to use with another carrier than AT&T.
    • If you purchase a stolen cell phone, the obligation is to return it

      A, the idea is when you know a phone you purchased is stolen, is to return it. Otherwise you are no better than the person who stole it.
  • Good idea...

    Sounds good.

    Hopefully the thieves won't find the modern equivalent of filing off a gun's serial # or modifying a car's VIN. Most other countries have had a similar program in place for several years and I have not heard of this method being cracked yet.

    As for me, I've been lucky...I've avoided having mine stolen. Well okay I do not own one. :) I'm okay financially, I just am not someone who really needs one. I'd rather put that ~$1200 a year into something else, like say retirement. At least for now.

    I do have a cell phone though. Cost me $10 for the phone, and $8.25 a month. Good enough for regular away from home and emergency calls.
    • It already exists

      It's called IMEI theft, where an IMEI number is changed using low level software to either an innocuous one, or an IMEI that is known good and registered to a phone overseas. It's common for "free SIM unlock code" scams to do this, since SIM unlocking inherently requires the IMEI.

      The trick isn't to get smartphone thefts to go down to zero. The trick is to make it trivial for the local pawn shop to check IMEIs with carriers with a quick phone call to the carriers before buying the phone, and checking the etched barcode on the back of the phone with the IMEI the software displays to ensure that they match. If they can make it trivial for secondhand buyers to avoid buying stolen phones unless some dedicated reprogramming efforts are involved, it then becomes a coordinated effort, not a quick flip.

      • IEMI verification

        I forget what code to use, but all my Nokia phones have been able to type in a code on the phone pad and have it show what the IEMI is without taking out the battery.
  • great idea

    now hopefully for those us that frequent new phones via craigslist they may this list public viewable so that we can prove that they are free and clear to purchase.
  • Malicious reports

    I realise that it's only going to be a small subset but do they have any measures to prevent or rectify false reports being made to hassle people?
    • I'd assume so

      At least in the US, phones are purchased from carriers. Carriers scan in IMEI numbers at point-of-sale. In addition to someone having to know the IMEI number in order to make a fraudulent report of the phone being stolen (almost invariably more complicated than physically stealing the phone), it'd be trivial for the carriers to verify whether the IMEI of the phone has been used recently, or if the person who bought it is also the person reporting the theft. Finally, I'd assume that they could avoid making it a permanent blacklist; if the rightful owner of the phone can provide the IMEI number, SIM card number, and verify the account information, taking it off the blacklist should be as simple as putting it in.

  • well

    Imagine when the carriers determine that you don't actually own your device. Then, they can turn it into a brick for putting it on eBay. Great way to prevent competition.
    • Imagine being smart enough to use a smaller carrier

      for example, I use Consumer Cellular. Phones are bought outright (unsubsidized) and there's no contract. I can buy almost any phone that takes a SIM and works on AT&T or T-Mobile, but a SIM for $35 from CC, and pay as I go; data plan completely optional.

      Imagine a cell carrier claiming I don't own my phone, when I have a receipt *and* a record of purchase transaction through my bank.
      Rich Tietjens
      • Blast. Spelling error.

        That's "buy a SIM".
        Rich Tietjens
    • That

      Is one issue that I'm concerned about as I tend to sell my used device on eBay when I upgrade.
  • Smart Phones Outwitting Users

    If you have "spent thousands on smart phones", you're not doing it right. You are supposed to use the phone, not let it use you. They're just communication devices ...
    • Smart Phones Outwitting Users

      If you paid $100 per phone and got a new phone every year after 10 years you would have spent a $1,000 just for yourself, now add in a spouse and/or kids and thousands is not hard to reach even at every 2 years per phone.