Cellphone companies to refuse service for stolen devices

Canadians may soon be better protected against cellphone theft, with the association representing wireless companies preparing to deny service to phones registered as stolen.

Starting Sept. 30, 2013, cellphone customers will be able to register a stolen phone. Canadian companies will then refuse to provide service to a cellphone with a device identifier registered as lost or stolen.

"This new device verification process, which will deny service to any device that is on the GSMA blacklist, is designed to help eliminate the black market for stolen devices in Canada and abroad," said Bernard Lord, head of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

There are no plans to charge consumers for the service, Lord says, although it's likely to cost the industry $20 million.

"I guess we have to consider this as a cost of doing business and making sure that we're doing what's right for consumers across the country," Lord said.

The plan comes as the CRTC is consulting consumers on a new code of conduct for cellphone companies.

It will be up to customers to immediately report a lost or stolen phone to have their device deactivated, the industry group's news release says. Once the device has been reported, the service provider can then add the device to the blacklist. All instances of personal theft should of course be reported to local law enforcement as well.

The U.S. is implementing the same plan in November 2013, and is considering legislation to make it a crime to tamper with a device identifier. Australia and the U.K. have already adopted laws to make tampering with device identifiers a crime.

The registry will apply to all GSM, HSPA and LTE phones that are sold now — or any smartphone currently sold in Canada.

Jim Chu, head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, says the registry will have an impact on cellphone theft. A recent motion at the association's annual meeting that calls for this kind of registry got unanimous support, he said.

Chu says the number of thefts has risen in Vancouver and Montreal. The thefts are usually violent, he noted.

"It was too simple — a stolen smartphone could be reactivated on another wireless carrier's network, no questions asked. With these actions, that stops, reducing the interest and the motivation for committing these crimes."

Industry Minister Christian Paradis says Canadians should take advantage of the registry.

"We increasingly depend on our mobile devices at work, home and play. Efforts to combat the theft [of such] devices and consequently the theft of personal information is both welcome and needed.

A statement from CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais says the regulator has been concerned for some time about reports of increased crime involving stolen cellphones.

"The creation of a database to keep track of devices that have been lost or stolen, and collaboration within the industry to ensure they are not reactivated, will help to make cellphones less desirable to thieves. I would strongly encourage the industry to implement the database before September 2013 to ensure Canadians benefit from this added protection as soon as possible," Blais said in the statement.

"We look forward to receiving further details at the end of November about the CWTA's plan, including data on lost and stolen cellphones in Canada, as well as its other activities related to this issue. This information will enable the CRTC to decide how best to support the industry in its efforts."

A spokesman for consumer group Open Media says he's pleased with the move, but that consumers would still like to see lower prices and more competition in the wireless market.

"I think that it's a good idea and it's good to see that the industry association is getting the message that Canadians expect a little bit more in terms of protecting them," Steve Anderson said.

"What I'm hearing from Canadians in terms of what they want most from cellphone service is more affordable prices, more respectful and responsible customer service and more choice in the market place. I hope that the CRTC and those in the industry know that those are the priorities of Canadians, but I don't think that detracts from the announcement today."

While the deadline for the database is just under a year away, it's possible the wireless companies will launch their databases ahead of the September 2013 deadline, Lord said.

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