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U.S., Mexico sign on to reduce stolen-cellphone market

WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Mexican government officials signed an agreement Tuesday aimed at fighting theft and cross-border trafficking of cellular devices by making stolen devices unusable.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said the agreement addresses "the growing trend of stolen mobile devices" that has come with the rapid adoption of smartphones and tablets.

"U.S. and Mexican collaboration to block reactivation of stolen mobile devices in both countries sends a clear message to thieves and criminal gangs: This is a crime that does not pay," Genachowski said.

He said AT&T, T-Mobile and other U.S. cellular carriers have begun to use an international database that tracks cellphones reported stolen. Mexico's four major carriers have been using the database since September.

Once on the list, a phone is deactivated and cannot be reactivated in the U.S., Mexico or other participating countries.

"For more than 90 percent of U.S. mobile consumers, if your smartphone is stolen in California, Texas or anywhere in the U.S., it can't be reactivated in Mexico" under the new policy, Genachowski said. "The same for phones stolen in Mexico, they can't be reactivated in the U.S."

He said that more than 40 percent of robberies in Washington, New York and other large American cities now involve cell phones.

Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier said she has discussed the problem over the last year and a half with chiefs around the country.

"This is a very positive, proactive step," Lanier said at Tuesday's signing. "It's not a big problem right now, we don't want it to become a big problem."

Along the Arizona border, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said he has not personally seen this as a major problem, but that doesn't mean it is not happening.

"Being at the border, there are so many things that come back and forth," Estrada said. "A lot of good things and a lot of illicit things."

Estrada said law enforcement agencies on the border look for opportunities to share information, and if they can work together and get ahead of a potential problem, he supports that.

Genachowski said the FCC does not have data on how many stolen phones are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, but part of Tuesday's agreement calls for each side to provide statistics over time.

Despite the lack of hard data, Genachowski said trafficking does exist. By working together, the two countries are hopeful they can put a stop to it, he said.

"As we were both taking steps in our own countries, we knew that we were increasing the incentives for cross-border shipping of stolen devices," Genachowski said. "What we have done today is we have expanded the no-value for black market zone across our very large border."

Under the agreement signed Tuesday, the FCC and Mexico's Secretary of Communications and Transport will also work together to prevent mobile device theft, share best practices and regularly report on each country's efforts. Those twice-yearly reports will be provided to the FCC and its Mexican counterpart, and made available to the public.

Mexican Communications Under-Secretary Hector Olavarria Tapia said Tuesday's agreement is an important step forward and part of ongoing efforts by both countries, but that there is still work to be done.

"There are still important challenges that can be and still need to be addressed through international cooperation in order to discourage mobile device theft and illegal commercialization," Olavarria said.

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