I was walking in Glen Park, a solidly middle-class San Francisco neighborhood, the other day. And there on a telephone pole was a notice from the police warning me not to use my iPhone openly or walk around with the tell-tale white ear buds showing. You can guess the reason. iPhones and ear buds are mugger magnets. Solid, if unsettling, advice I thought. And when I did a little research, I found that police in other cities -- New York, for one -- hand out similar advice.
Yet when queried about cell phone theft by the New York Times, John Walls, a spokesman for the CTIA, the wireless industry's trade group, says that phones are so cheap (because of carrier subsidies) that theft is not a significant problem. What a bunch of nonsense. Police aren't handing out those warning for nothing. So far this year, there have been 120 robberies involving iPhones in San Francisco, a five-fold increase over 2008, Sgt. Wilfred Williams, a spokesman for the SFPD, told me. And sometimes the victim is beaten, not just robbed. Sounds significant to me. As does the $199 to $299 price tag.
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Sure, you can call AT&T after a theft and they'll turn off the account. But a smart thief or fence (a middleman in the stolen goods food chain) knows that replacing the SIM card makes that iPhone good to go. Similarly, the rightful owner of a stolen Kindle (Amazon's e-book reader) can turn off the account -- but the device remains usable. So there's incentive to steal them.
[Update: iPhone 3.1, released Wednesday, apparently allows users of MobileMe to disable the iPhone over the air. Whether changing the SIM card defeats that tactic isn't yet clear. I'm glad Apple made the change, but why did it take so long and why is it only available to users of a $99-a-year service?]
The CTIA's Walls is just doing his job. He doesn't have the power to do anything but issue press releases. But other people in the industry do have power, so why don't companies like Apple and Amazon.com fight crime by making stolen wireless devices useless to the thief? It's not that technically hard, nor that expensive. It's cultural: Give us your money and then shut up.