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U.S. Senator To Introduce 'Kill Switch' Legislation To Combat Phone Thefts

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) plans to introduce legislation that will curb phone thefts by forcing companies to include a "kill switch" in devices. | ASSOCIATED PRESS

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) will introduce legislation in coming weeks to fight a growing trend of smartphone thefts nationwide by forcing the industry to adopt technology that makes it impossible to reuse stolen devices.

Klobuchar’s bill would require all phones sold in the United States to have a “kill switch” that shuts down a phone's call capabilities, Wi-Fi, games and other features when it's reported stolen. The wireless industry has resisted such a feature, raising questions about whether the legislation will succeed.

The bill -- the first of its kind in Congress -- would empower the Federal Communications Commission to issue fines or other penalties against phone manufacturers or wireless carriers that do not comply.

In an interview, Klobuchar told The Huffington Post that she decided to introduce legislation after hearing about a recent surge of smartphone robberies targeting students at the University of Minnesota, and discovering that phone robberies had become a nationwide problem.

About 1.6 million Americans had their phones stolen last year, according to Consumer Reports. About 40 percent of robberies in major U.S. cities involve mobile devices, the Federal Communications Commission has noted.

In her eight years as a prosecutor, Klobuchar said she rarely encountered a phone theft case, but the problem has now become an epidemic.

"There's been a major shift,” she told HuffPost. “And that has to do with the value of these phones.”

Stolen phones can be resold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars on an underground market that connects buyers and sellers around the world. The same iPhone that can cost an American customer just $200 with a two-year service contract can fetch as much as $2,000 in Hong Kong or Brazil, where import taxes have driven up the price of Apple products.

Klobuchar, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on consumer rights issues, said she plans to hold a hearing on the topic in the coming months.

Klobuchar is the latest elected official to pressure the industry to find a solution to what has become an international public safety issue. California State Sen. Mark Leno (D) plans to introduce legislation next month that would require every new smartphone sold in the state to carry anti-theft technology.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched their "Secure Our Smartphones" initiative last summer, aimed at pressing the industry to adopt technology that could make stolen phones worthless to thieves. More than 100 officials from across the country -- including district attorneys and high-level police officials from eight major cities and attorneys general from six states -- have joined the effort.

Apple and Samsung have responded to the growing pressure by announcing new security features last summer that they said would allow consumers to render their devices useless once stolen.

But the effectiveness of Apple’s new anti-theft feature, which was introduced in September, is still unproven, and wireless carriers have rejected the rollout of Samsung’s kill switch feature to preserve their profits from selling phone insurance, according to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.

Meanwhile, thefts of smartphones and other mobile devices increased in several major cities in 2013, including New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Paul Boken, whose 23-year-old daughter, Megan, was killed in an iPhone robbery in 2012, told HuffPost that Apple needs “to do more to make users aware of the usefulness” of its new anti-theft feature. He also said he was “very disappointed" with the rest of the industry's "lack of progress on the issue.”

But he was encouraged by Klobuchar's legislation to deter phone thieves.

“Initiatives to do something about it seem to be gaining momentum,” he told HuffPost.

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