San Francisco DA George Gascón unhappy with cellphone industry approach to thefts 

District Attorney George Gascón says cellphone companies are reluctant to disable phones reported stolen. - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images File Photo
  • District Attorney George Gascón says cellphone companies are reluctant to disable phones reported stolen.

With cellphone robberies plaguing San Francisco streets, local law enforcement officials are calling on manufacturers and carriers to beef up security protocols.

District Attorney George Gascón, who recently met with major service providers and is now trying to secure a meeting with smartphone manufacturers, said he believes it’s about the bottom line.

“I get this thing stolen and now I’ve got to buy another one,” Gascón said. The telecommunications industry is “making a ton of money,” he said.

About half of the robbery cases that prosecutors handle involve smartphones, Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said. Police data show that of the roughly 3,190 robberies reported in The City last year, about 1,470 involved cellphones. And between Saturday and Monday, there were 13 robberies involving cellphones among the 25 major crimes reported by the Police Department.

Despite the rampant thefts, Gascón said the telecommunications industry has not done enough to curb the incidents. Just scoring a meeting with major carriers and industry lobbyists took two to three months, Gascón said. And after that meeting, the district attorney left feeling less than satisfied.

“They say they’re going to do everything they can,” Gascón said. “They’re not doing everything they can.”

He said the simple solution is to implement technology that disables a phone after it’s reported stolen. The solution being implemented by industry players, Gascón said, includes setting up a national registry in which a theft victim can enter their phone’s identification number into a database. Service providers accessing that database can then deny any request to activate the phone.

Gascón said a registry won’t help, partly because some service providers will skirt the rules and because some victims simply won’t report to the registry.

“It’s very anti-consumer,” he said of the registry. “Worse off, it’s socially irresponsible.”

The thefts are traumatic even for victims who are not injured, and the impact on the justice system is noticeable.
“What all those kids don’t understand is if they punch me and grab the phone and run, this is a robbery and is a strike” under California’s three-strikes law, Gascón said.

In a separate bid, the Police Commission has been seeking answers from the telecommunications industry. The topic is expected to be discussed at tonight’s meeting.

“The manufacturers are not being transparent,” said commission President Thomas Mazzucco. “They give you these halfhearted answers that don’t resonate with reality.”

Requests for comment from Apple, Motorola and AT&T went unanswered as of Tuesday evening.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group for the wireless telecommunications industry, said in an email that companies have met obligations agreed upon last year with the federal government and law enforcement agencies. One included implementing the registry.

“The deadlines that have passed have been met,” the group said.

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