Criminals with a passion for iPhones -- the so-called "Apple pickers" who've been known to snatch a device right out of an unsuspecting user's hands -- face a new deterrent: a "kill switch" that law-enforcement officers hope will curb the soaring number of thefts.
Apple's new operating system, iOS 7, includes an Activation Lock feature that can render an iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch useless to thieves. iOS 7 comes pre-loaded on the new iPhone 5C and 5S models that go on sale Friday. Those with an older phone can download iOS 7 as a free upgrade.
Two top prosecutors, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, said in a joint statement Thursday that it was too soon to know whether the Activation Lock would be a comprehensive solution, but they urged iPhone owners to take advantage of it.
"This is an important first step towards ending the global epidemic of smart-phone theft," they said.
It works by requiring someone to enter an Apple ID and password in order to turn off the phone's "Find My iPhone" feature or to erase any data on the phone. The owner must first sign on to iCloud or use the "Find My iPhone" app.
Gascon and Schneiderman said they hoped the feature would leave stolen phones with no resale value, and they urged other leading manufacturers of smartphones to implement similar deterrents.
They also called on Apple to make the feature fully automatic to guarantee its use.
"Theft deterrence for iPhone users will occur only if adoption of iOS 7, and the utilization of an Apple ID and Find My iPhone is widespread," they said.
Secure Our Smartphones, a coalition of law-enforcement officers, elected officials and consumer advocates, has been pressuring phone manufacturers to improve their security.
The theft of cell phones makes up 30 to 40 percent of all robberies nationwide, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In the United States, about 113 smartphones are stolen or lost every minute, according to data on Schneiderman's Web site. More than 1.6 million people had their phones stolen last year.
In New York City, the theft of Apple products has driven much of the rise in the theft of electronics. In the first nine months of last year, a total of 11,447 cases of stolen iPhones and other devices were reported to the New York City Police Department, an increase of 3,280 over the year before.
In San Francisco, half of robberies are smartphone related.
The cost to consumers was more than $30 billion in 2012, according to a study by Lookout, a San Francisco mobile security company.