Smartphone Kill Switch Would Save Consumers $2.6 Billion a Year

More than 1.6 million cell phones are stolen every year. But a simple software change would make them impossible to resell and reduce the theft epidemic.

Adding a so-called kill switch to smartphones is such a no-brainer, it’s hard to believe that -- with the notable exception of Apple – the wireless industry is still resistant to taking this simple step.

Police, prosecutors and many consumer advocates have argued for years that a remote switch that would allow the owner of a stolen smartphone to brick it, that is make the device unusable, would reduce the epidemic of smartphone thefts (there were an estimated 1.6 million in 2012, and probably more last year)  in the U.S.

Not only would the kill switches reduce muggings, they would save consumers an estimated $2.6 billion annually, according to a study by researchers at Creighton University.

“If the Kill Switch significantly reduced cell phone theft, consumers could save about $580 million a year from not needing to replace stolen phones and another $2 billion a year by switching from premium cell phone insurance (offered by the wireless carriers) to more basic coverage offered by third parties such as Apple and SquareTrade,” writes William Duckworth, the author of the report.

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Duckworth also found that most smartphone users are in favor of an optional kill switch and that about would reduce their cell phone insurance coverage if thefts became less common.

Duckworth based his conclusion on a survey of 1,200 smartphone owners and reviewed the average cost of cell phones and cell phone insurance. Other data indicates just how lucrative smartphone theft actually is. “A stolen smartphone – such as the iPhone 5S – could sell for $800 or more in the United States and overseas. For criminals, a stolen phone could be worth more than a stolen wallet, a tablet, or even a laptop,” he writes.

Of course, there’s something worse than having your smartphone stolen, and that’s getting injured or even killed during a theft. Police in San Francisco, for example, say most street muggings are related to smartphone theft, and a fair number result in violence, says District Attorney George Gascon.

Last year, Apple added a kill switch to an app called Find My iPhone. Users can activate the feature via a PC or a Mac when their phone disappears, and reverse the process later when the device is recovered.

Simply locking a smartphone is not a solution, since thieves have found it fairly easy to circumvent that protection and then resell the phone. Many stolen smartphones wind up overseas, officials say, where they are sold at a significant premium.

Given those facts, the excuses made by the industry and its trade association, the CTIA, are simply self-serving and shameful. The industry is more interested in selling pricey insurance policies and making money off the sale of replacement phones than in the safety of its customers.

Image: Creighton University

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