12 Investigates: Black Market Cell Phones

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A thief sucker punches a man beating him bloody. The victim tries to get up, but the robber kicks him back down and makes off with his I-phone.

A man follows a teenage girl into her apartment lobby just to snatch her phone punching her over and over again.

There have been a string of robberies at VCU in recent weeks and what do the thieves most often make off with? The answer is cell phones.

Chelsie Hanley and her friends were at a bowling alley when a thief walked by and took two phones. The phones were I-Phones and their expensive cases. "I thought it was a joke. We really thought he was joking. But then we realized he ran out the door and we didn't know what to do." said Chelsie.

The FCC reports one out of every three robberies nationwide involves stealing a cell phone.

Washington DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier says, the wireless industry was putting its own profit over your safety allowing stolen phones to be re-activated later with a different phone number. "It's a huge business, huge business. The after-market resale of these phones is just driving this whole problem" says Lanier.

Our Raycom Media colleagues recently went undercover with a handful of phones and vague information trying to sell not a pawn shops, but real wireless stores.

Police told us there's an easy fix that would stop criminals in their tracks. Cell phone has its own unique id or fingerprint. Once the phone is reported stolen, it would be blacklisted in the US. Wireless companies from Verizon, AT&T, T-mobile, & Sprint would all share information banning service on that stolen phone on all carriers forever.

Chief Lanier says "It becomes a brick. It's useless so, there's no profit anymore, and when you take that profit away, then there's no motivation to stick a gun in somebody's face and take their phone.

Just weeks ago the major US cell phone carriers and the FCC rolled out a plan to create a central national database to track stolen phones and prevent them from being used on any other network.

The service should be up and running in 2013. So what took so long to get to this point?

Holly Hollingsworth from AT&T says "In Europe, for example, there is one kind of wireless network. Here in the US, however there are two different kinds of wireless networks. So with the various carriers, half of them use this kind of network, half of them use that kind of network."

There's also a bill in the US Senate called the Mobile Device Theft Deterrence Act. It proposes a five year prison sentence for anyone caught tampering with the I-D numbers of stolen cell phones.

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