The Justice League. The Avengers. Voltron. Those annoying kids who always ran around for twenty minutes until Captain Planet showed up. Now you can add the four largest cellular service providers in the United States to the list of teams dedicated to fighting evil - or at least petty theft. Bloomberg reports that Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and the Now Network have united with the Federal Communications Commission to create a nationwide database of stolen cellphones, and implement a system to keep the ill-gotten goods from being reactivated and/or resold.
Normally when a phone gets stolen, the carrier deactivates the SIM card associated with the victim's account and sends them a new phone and card combo. But GSM phones can still be used - all the thief needs is another SIM card. Alternately they can quickly sell the phone without a card, "unlocked" as it were, and make a tidy profit. Cell phones' ubiquitous nature, combined with high demand and relatively anonymous turnaround, have made them a lucrative target for thieves. (In the case of CDMA networks, the phone itself is disabled.)
The new system will keep track of a customer's phone, instead of just the SIM via its unique identifier code. On GSM phones this is the IMEI number, while CDMA phones generally get the similar MEID or older ESN. The new joint system will allow a reportedly stolen phone from any manufacturer and/or carrier to be remotely disabled - though there's no telling if this means the phone is totally disabled ("bricked") or just barred from accessing any cellular networks. Presumably the system would work on tablets with 3G and LTE radios as well.
There's at least one cause for concern, however: the carriers and the FCC are working with Congress on legislation that would make tampering wit these remote disabling systems illegal on a federal level. That's fine in theory, but it's a short leap to "messing with your phone? you mist be a thief!" In any case, the efforts of the carriers and the FCC is much appreciated with the cost of the latest high-end smartphones pushing ever higher - not that having any cell phone stolen is ever a good experience. The new system should be in place within six months.