Smartphone thefts skyrocket, officials on alert

Pickpocket stealing phone
Pickpocket stealing phone

(CBS News) - Americans love to use smartphones, and thieves love to steal them. Why? Because there's a growing black market for these expensive devices. But now, cellphone carriers and the government are fighting back.

In New York's subway system, handheld electronic devices like the iPhone make up half of all thefts. The rise of stolen cell phones has prompted the New York Police Department to put hundreds of additional transit cops underground where commuters are easy targets.

Cell phone theft in New York City jumped from eight percent of robberies 10 years ago to more than 40 percent today.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, said, "iPhone and smart phones nowadays are like catnip for criminals. They've valuable, they're exposed. They're easy to steal."

Schumer and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced an agreement between the Federal Communications Commission and the nation's cellular providers to create a database that would be used to permanently disable stolen smartphones.

Schumer said, "We intend to make the black market for cell phones a black hole for would-be thieves and criminals."

If the unique identification number of a stolen phone is added to the national database, all major U.S. service providers would know not to activate the phone.

Kevin Mahaffey, founder of the San Francisco-based company Lookout, which created a free app to protect user data and locate lost phones, says even a disabled cell phone still has value.

"What it still does allow is for these devices to connect to the internet via WiFi or for it to be sold overseas in international markets," he said.

Schumer will introduce legislation that would make it a federal crime to tamper with a cell phone's unique identification number, punishable by up to five years in prison.

In many ways, the U.S. is behind the curve as these types of databases are already used in Australia and many parts of Europe. In the U.S. this wouldn't take effect right away, but every cell phone would be registered within 18 months and most in six months.

To watch Seth Doane's full report and hear more about what consumers need to know, watch the video in the player above.