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Smartphone Kill Switch Is Here -- and Already Reducing Theft

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 06, 2015 3:59 PM

It's a bad time to be a pickpocket or mugger. Starting this July, all smartphones sold in California must come with a kill switch -- software that allows the phone's owner to disable the device should it be stolen. This makes the phones more difficult to resell and less of a target for thieves.

The smartphone kill switch may already be working. Smartphone thefts have dropped drastically in the last year, which some advocates attribute to the growing prevalence of the kill switches.

Siri, Kill Yourself

Under the California law, starting July 1st all smartphones must come with a kill switch that allows the owner to remotely disable their phone -- for good. Minnesota adopted a similar law a year ago, but did not require that the kill switch option be turned on. In California, an active kill switch must be the phone's default. Retailers who knowingly sell phones that don't meet the new standard can be charged $500 to $2,500.

Given the size of the California market, the law could essentially result in all U.S. phones being equipped with kill switches. All major cell phone manufacturers, from Apple to ZTE, have decided to implement California's requirements nationwide. As kill switches become ubiquitous, cell phone theft will become essentially pointless, advocates such as the Cellular Telephone Industries Association argue. After all, once a kill switch is activated, a stolen phone will be useless.

Drop in Cell Phone Theft

Though the law went into effect July 1st, many phones have had kill switches available for a while now. Newer iPhones, for example, can be killed through the "Find my iPhone" app, while Samsung phones can be killed through a "Reactivation Lock." Androids, however, lag behind.

Those kill switches already seem to be having an impact. One million fewer Americans were victims of cell phone theft in 2014 than in 2013, according to Consumer Reports. That's a drop of over 30 percent. The drop is especially pronounced in iPhones, which were some of the first phones to add anti-theft protections.

As the kill switches become increasingly common, expect rates of cell phone theft to fall even further. Thieves might soon need to find a new hot item to steal.

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