It stinks to have your phone stolen and the government knows it. Now, a number of police departments and the Federal Communications Commission have teamed up to create a new federal database of cellphone information for theft prevention. Once the project goes live, it will enable mobile carriers to disable -- or, as the geeks say, "brick" -- stolen cellphones so that they'll be useless to the thieves. This is supposed to make the phone worthless on the black market, and Congress is even working on making it a federal crime to hack the disabled phones in an attempt to make them usable again. Sen. Chuck Shumer, a New York Democrat will introduce the law and told The New York Times, "Our goal is to make a stolen cellphone as worthless as an empty wallet."
This solution isn't perfect, especially for smartphone users. First of all, theft deterrent measures are only effective as long as thieves don't figure out a way around them, and if thieves are anything, they're enterprising. We're sure they'll come up with some sort of hack, regardless of whether or not it's a federal crime. There's also bound to be some privacy concerns based on the recent kerfuffle raised over police department's use of cellphones as tracking tools. Not only do police departments routinely track people through their cell phones, but mobile carriers also make money charging hidden fees to make this possible. A national database of all cellphones made readily available to police is likely only to stoke this debate.
Aside from the nuisance of losing your phone, the main concern is that smartphones tend to be packed with sensitive personal data including bank account information, emails, and contacts. So what can you do if your phone is stolen before the government's new anti-cellphone stealing program kicks off. Well, if you can forgive us for using a very tired cliché, there are apps for that, and they're only getting better. In the unfortunate circumstance that your phone gets ganked in the near future, we recommend these two easy steps.
Step 1: Cut off the service
We all have that one friend whose got his phone stolen and then ended up with a $5,000 bill because the thief decided to place three hour-long phone calls to all seven continents. This is common sense, but the first thing to do in the event of theft is call the carrier and let them know. Without service, it will be harder to call the phone and hope the thief will answer. But that's what the apps are for.
Step 2: Find the phone
Depending on the type of phone you have there are some really high quality services that can help you not only track down your phone but erase the data in the event that you don't find it. If you're actually trying to track down the device, you should also contact the police who may or may not be able to help.
Apple's Find My iPhone comes already installed on the iPhone and takes two seconds to set up. (Go to Settings > iCloud > Enable Find My iPhone.) If and when your iPhone is out of your reach, you can go to iCloud.com to pull up the phone's location on a map. From there, you can also send a message to the phone like, "I lost my phone -- Please call 617.555.1857," or make the phone sound an alert. This is especially handy if you're in a coffee shop or bar, the most common places to have a phone stolen, and the dumb thief is still around. If all else fails you can slam a passcode on the phone or, as a last resort, wipe all of the data from the device.
Android and BlackBerry users should try Lookout. The basic app is free to download and works much like Apple's Find My iPhone, however there's the added bonus of data protection and virus protection. You'll need to upgrade to the premium version to get the remote lock and wipe features as well as more sophisticated backup and security features. Another perk of Lookout is that it doesn't have to be installed on the phone when it's lost. A feature called Plan B will allow you to connect with the phone, and Lookout will email maps of the phone's location to you.
But seriously, the best thing to do in every case is keep your phone safe. Don't play Angry Birds in dark alleys or leave your phone unattended on a bar. That's just asking for trouble.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.