Should U.S. wireless carriers brick stolen cellphones? [poll]

Should U.S. wireless carriers brick stolen cellphones? [poll]

Summary: The 'bricking' technique is already used in the UK and Australia, but will it have an impact on crime prevention?


Thousands of cellphones are stolen every year, many under violent circumstances. One potentially quick and easy solution that could help to reduce the knock-on effects from phone thefts would be for the carriers to 'brick' the stolen handsets so they become useless.

But it turns out that the wireless carriers are dragging their heels when it comes to implementing this solution.

Before we go on, a word on 'bricking.' This isn't bricking in the sense of the carrier sending a secret code down to the handset that kills it stone dead. The bricking is done at the carrier end, with a device's ESN or IMEI being blacklisted and used to prevent the handset from being reconnected to the network.

This technique is already being used in the UK and Australia. However, the handset can be shipped off to a foreign country where it can still be used, or the IMEI number on some handsets can be changed. While far from perfect, it seems to have helped reduce cellphone thefts.

It's unclear why the carriers are dragging their heels. The only carrier to offer MSNBC a statement on the matter was Sprint which says that it is 'willing to cooperate and work with law enforcement officials on situations regarding cell phone theft' and that the creation of a national database or listing of stolen cell phones is a discussion the company 'is open to participating in.'

Likely reasons why carriers have so far been reluctant to set up a national database are cost and the need to cooperate. I've also seen a secondary reason, which is that the carriers feel that the system could be misused and legitimate phones end up being blocked -- either accidentally of maliciously. While all valid reasons, none seem like deal-breakers to me, especially given the potential violent nature of street robberies.

[poll id="759"]

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Networking, Wi-Fi

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  • RE: Bricking

    The carriers are against bricking because they want the stolen handsets to be reactivated on their networks after they are sold to new end users. The victim or their insurance ends up paying for a new handset, so the carrier gets a new activation without paying a subsidy for the phone. Win for the carrier. If they put in this bricking logic, it just reduces the chance of the phone ending up on their network, doesn't save them money. If the phone is going to be stolen, they'd rather not prevent it from being reactivated locally with another user.
  • wow

    I think the obvious answer is yes......

    But like you say, i am from UK and if people steal them, they just sell them on ebay and people send them abroad, so doesnt stop much crime.

    All new phones should have GPS and the ability to turn them on remotely. That way you can always find where they are.
    • Unconstitutional

      "All new phones should have GPS and the ability to turn them on remotely. That way you can always find where they are. "

      This is contrary to both federal law and the constitution....
      Doctor Demento
      • I didn't know LOJACK was illegal

        and against federal law and the constitution.

        So it's wrong to do the same thing for a cell phone if it's reported stolen?
        William Farrel
      • GPS is on Verizon phones

        I don't know about remotely turning a phone on but certainly all new Verizon phones since about 2005 have had GPS. The rationale is that if you call 911 you can be routed to the correct emergency service (by locale) and pinpointed to get you help.

        I don't know about other carriers.
      • ....

        I'm not American so i wouldnt know. But its illegal to access your own phone via the internet and find out where it is? Because i can do that with my windows phone on microsofts website, and it offers this service to Americans.

        The only thing i cant do with it is turn it on remotely, but if it's my phone that belongs to me, why would that be illegal for me to turn it on?
      • All new 3G phones do have GPS

        By federal law in order to comply with 911 requirements, cellphones must have GPS so that the phone can be located precisely. Even without GPS, phones can be located within a few hundred feet or so by the cell towers they are connected to, simply to route calls.

        What is impossible is the ability to turn phones on remotely. For that to happen, the phone must be in a sleep mode and able to receive signals rather than fully powered off (and for those phones with removable batteries, the battery must be inserted). Unless the electronics of the phone are powered at some state and listening to radio signals, the phone won't be able to "hear" a command to wake it up. That's why professional identity thieves always remove the battery or power down a stolen phone they have acquired, because otherwise Enterprise users and people who subscribe to the consumer services like Find My iPhone can remotely wipe the phone to remove any sensitive data. This is usually much more valuable to thieves than the physical phone, anyway.
    • Remote turn on is impossible

      Being able to turn a phone on is a myth. You can't turn it on because it's not listening for signals over radio any more and so you can't give it the instructions. If it were listening and able to perform instructions it wouldn't be turned off by definition.
    • This is possible on many android phones

      a little app called Tasker allows you to automate a return call response, activate the gps and wifi and have the phone send back it's current location.
  • The Problem With Bricking

    I used to work for at&t, and one of the most common customer service issues that one faces when working for a wireless carrier is the issue of the owner of an account decided, for whatever reason, which are usually quite childish and petty, that they want to punish the user of another line on their account, and so they call asking for the line to be suspended.

    Sometimes, this was legitimate because it was a parent calling to suspend their child's line because of a bad report card or something, but most of the time it was simply spiteful.

    The most common issue is when a married couple is having problems, the wife or the husband will call to have their spouses' line suspended, or even canceled outright, simply 'to teach him or her a lesson'.

    On some accounts, you look at the notes, and it is apparent that there has been a war going on between the people on the person calls to suspend the other's line, then the other calls in to unsuspend the line and suspend the other person's line, and it goes back and forth over and over sometimes for months...suspended not for a legitimate reason, but simply out of spite. give the carrier the ability not merely to suspend the phone but to (apparently permanently) blacklist the phone so it can never be used again....this is going to get ugly very quickly...

    If they are going to implement something like this, it is going to need to be VERY strictly regulated, it must not be possible to do it by a call to customer service but rather in store only, and they had better require a copy of a police report, or a signed affadavit or something to prove that the phone really was STOLEN, not simply LOST but STOLEN and that it is not being done simply out of spite or to get revenge on another person on your account..,,,,otherwise this is ripe for serious abuse.
    Doctor Demento
    • Sounds fair to me

      With a police report in hand, how can it be a prank ? I mean if it was a prank, then the prankster might end up with whatever charges apply for false reporting. Just somebody have them do it already.
    • Bricking problems

      So if the phone is reported stolen, then it should only be able to be re-activated to the last account on record, old phone be sold to someone else. If an account has multiple cancels/re-activates then all numbers should be suspended and local police told to investigate what the correct reason is, possibly splitting numbers off to seperate accounts or until all adults can act as such instead of like children.
  • should be standard pratice in US

    I thought all US carriers had the capability of sending a special code to any mobile phone on their network that would force it to reboot into its default state - effectively erasing all stored information by the consumer. It should be easy enough to block the corresponding ESN on the same network - this is terminal work, not much to do physically. This should be standard practice when a customer contacts the carrier to notify them they their device has been stolen - especially if the customer has the device insurance & just plans to replace the missing equipment.
    • Better still

      Use the inbuilt cell triangulation technology to pinpoint the stolen / lost device on first use after being reported as such to the provider in question - and police.

      Also slamming hefty fines on anyone that not only steals a mobile but those that also find a lost mobile and fail to turn it in to the police or to the owner. I'd suggest something like $50000 for theft and $5000 for non-disclosure: that is, having found a phone and used it for anything other than reporting it lost or contacting the legal owner).

      I've misplaced a phone that was a gift and to have gone back within half an hour of having realized exactly where i had sat it down .. just to find it was swiped. So i know exactly how demoralizing the feeling is to have lost something as personal: with so much personal data on it - and gotten absolutely no sympathy from some obviously low-life, petty thief who clearly takes satisfaction in pilfering, rather than doing the right thing and returning the item.

      Making this law applicable in the U.S is a no-brainer - and, really, it should have been implemented a long time ago. Now, for the 5% bird brains that voted 'No'; who don't understand my sentiments, it's really quite simple ... if i can't use my own goods or gadgets (through theft or otherwise) NO ONE GETS TO!!!
  • This already happens in the USA...

    Sprint, Verizon and any other CDMA based phones already do this...

    LTE devices do as well but you can get around that by excluding that last 4 digits of the IMEI # when activating it.

    The problem with the CMDA is that phones can be flashed to Metro or Cricket and then reused.
    • thank you!

      thank you! i was about to say the same thing. i used to work for sprint and all the owner had to do was call to report it stolen, after that it is effectively dead on that network. The problem is, of course, the flashing to carriers like Cricket, which don't know that device is stolen and will gladly activate it.
  • Should not do this

    This places to much "enforcement" into a carriers hands and would require the ability to execute this cross-carrier (ex: iPhone from AT&T on TMo).
    It requires the carrier to act based on a "report" that may or may not be factual.
    It requires response by police to the stealing of a phone - not sure about you but this would be way, way down on a police departments list of responses - they are busy.
    Would likely require the use of built in GPS tracking which is illegal in the US unless you have a specific court order.
    Would add another layer you would likely have to climb through when placing a claim with insurance for your stolen phone ("did you file a stolen phone shutdown and brick it form with the carrier cartel?").

    No, this is not a good idea.... at least here in the USA.
  • You don't need that with a LOJACK system

    [i]Would likely require the use of built in GPS tracking which is illegal in the US unless you have a specific court order.[/i]

    The owner reports it stolen, and the device is enabled.
    William Farrel
    • ya bud...

      How does the phone company know that the report is valid? I can't use my stolen phone to report it is stolen ... <grin>
      Do I need a police theft report number? How do they know it is valid
      Do the police report the theft for me? I'm sure they appreciate the extra work for a free or under $100 phone.

      Although I prefer that they could do it, the devil is in the details of making it idiot, sorry user proof.
  • Awesome

    New Technology Blog:
    James Michaels USA