US carriers have joined the FCC and law enforcement in establishing a central database to track and block stolen phones, in addition to pushing for tougher legislation for those that modify handsets' unique identifiers. The system, due to be announced later today according to the NYTimes, has the backing ofAT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile USA and others, with a target of cross-network identification and disabling in place within 18 months.
Initially, each of the major carriers will set up systems for their own network; that process, expected to take around six months, will see any handsets reported as stolen being blocked from use with another account. The FCC then apparently intends to assist the carriers on merging the databases into a national program that will stop cross-network porting too.
"It's just too easy for a thief to steal a phone and sell it on the black market," FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said of the scheme. "This program will make it a lot harder to do that. And the police departments we are working with tell us that it will significantly deter this kind of theft."
Meanwhile, Congress members are being involved to draft potential legislation that would make it a crime to manipulate the ID of a phone or phone-enabled device so as to bypass the blocking system.
However, it's questionable as to how effective the system may end up being on the larger scale. In Europe, IMEI blocking is used to lock down phones reported as stolen, but as the same blocking systems aren't used globally - only in certain European countries and Australia - there is still a market for exporting stolen handsets to countries where the IMEI won't be checked. That includes huge markets like China and Russia.
Nonetheless, the groups involved believe that the US system will act as a deterrent, though CDMA carriers like Verizon already lock down stolen phones via the Electronic Serial Number (ESN). AT&T and T-Mobile are likely to look to the GSMA's IMEI database, which allows GSM phones to be registered as blocked across all participating carriers.