TECH
06/19/2014 10:54 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2014

Apple's Plan To Stop iPhone Thefts Is Working

The kill switch is working.

That was the message Thursday from law enforcement officials who said new statistics show iPhone thefts have declined since Apple introduced a stronger anti-theft feature in September. They said criminals are responding by targeting people who carry other smartphones that don't have a similar feature to disable them if stolen.

In New York City, robberies involving Apple products fell 19 percent during the first five months of this year compared with the same period the year before, officials said. Meanwhile, violent robberies targeting people with Samsung smartphones, many of which do not have a kill switch, increased more than 40 percent in the city during that same period.

In San Francisco, iPhone robberies fell 38 percent during the six months after Apple released its new anti-theft feature, compared to the six months before its release, officials said. Robberies of Samsung devices increased 12 percent during that time, they said. In the corresponding period of time in London, iPhone robberies declined by 24 percent while Samsung thefts increased by 3 percent.

The new statistics were released by the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative, a coalition of mayors, attorneys general, district attorneys and high-level police officials. While the statistics may prove that Apple's kill switch is deterring thieves, smartphone thefts can fluctuate for other reasons. San Francisco police have found that iPhone thefts tend to rise in the summer, perhaps because more people are spending time outdoors with their devices.

Apple introduced its anti-theft feature, Activation Lock, last fall as part of the latest iPhone operating system, iOS7. It shuts down the phone when a thief attempts to turn off the Find My iPhone program that locates missing devices. Consumers must still turn on the feature, and police have expressed concern that many iPhone owners won't do it.

Samsung introduced a kill switch for its smartphones in April, but at the time it was only available to Verizon and U.S. Cellular customers so far. AT&T made the feature available to Samsung Galaxy S5 owners last month.

In a statement, a Samsung spokeswoman said the company "will continue to work closely with [the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative] and our carrier partners towards our common goal of stopping smartphone theft."

Law enforcement officials say if the industry introduced a universal kill switch that disables stolen phones, it could virtually eliminate thefts because criminals would no longer have an incentive to steal them.

They compare the kill switch to canceling a stolen credit card, and liken its potential impact to the anti-theft features introduced by the auto industry in the 1990s that led to a dramatic decline in car thefts.

But the smartphone industry opposed such a measure for months, claiming that hackers could exploit a kill switch to turn off phones, and lobbied against legislation that would have required anti-theft features in every smartphone sold in California. In April, smartphone makers and wireless companies announced a voluntary commitment to offer free anti-theft features on all phones made after July 2015.

Law enforcement officials say that the industry should implement a kill switch immediately and make it "opt-out," meaning it would automatically be activated on a consumer's phone.

“We can make the violent epidemic of smartphone theft a thing of the past, and these numbers prove that,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement Thursday.

Law enforcement officials also said Thursday that Google and Microsoft had agreed to incorporate a kill switch feature into the next version of their mobile operating systems. Google’s Android operating system runs on more than half of smartphones sold in the United States last year. Microsoft’s operating system runs on all Nokia smartphones, which make up only a small sliver of the market.

“The statistics released today illustrate the stunning effectiveness of kill switches and the commitments of Google and Microsoft are giant steps toward consumer safety,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.

About 3.1 million phones were stolen in the U.S. in 2013, nearly double the number of thefts from the previous year, according to Consumer Reports. A recent study found that consumers could save an estimated $2.5 billion each year on replacing phones and buying premium insurance if a "kill switch" technology significantly reduced thefts nationwide.

Earlier this year, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation in Congress requiring all smartphones sold in the country to include kill switch feature. Neither bill has been voted on yet. Last month, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to mandate a kill switch on all phones.

This story has been updated with a comment from Samsung.

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