The major wireless carriers announced a partnership with the federal government on Tuesday to create a national database of stolen cellphones.
The four largest carriers—Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile—agreed that within six months, they will begin disabling smartphones that have been reported as stolen. Within 18 months, a common database will allow the carriers to block stolen smartphones from operating on all of their networks.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced the initiative along with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and local police officials.
The purpose of the program is to discourage thieves by decreasing the value of stolen smartphones.
"Our goal is to make a stolen cell phone as worthless as an empty wallet,” Schumer said. “By permanently disabling stolen cell phones, we can take away the incentive to steal a cell phone in the first place and put a serious dent in the growing rates of iPhone and smart phone theft."
Wireless carriers can currently disable a stolen phone's SIM card to prevent it from being used on the existing account, but thieves can easily replace the SIM card and sell the phone on the black market.
Under the plan announced Tuesday, the wireless carriers will deactivate the smartphone itself using a unique identification number.
Schumer said he plans to introduce legislation that would make it a federal crime to tamper with the phone's identification number to try to evade the disabling system.
"With today’s announcement, we’re sending a message to consumers that we’ve got your back, and a message to criminals that we’re cracking down on the stolen phone and tablet re-sale market," Genachowski said.
Phone theft has been on the rise in recent years, according to police statistics. In Washington D.C., cellphone theft rose 54 percent between 2007 and 2011. According to the New York City Police Department, 42 percent of all property thefts in New York City last year involved a cellphone.
The wireless carriers will also launch programs to educate consumers about using their phones' screen locking features and how to remotely erase their phones' data.
"Today’s announcement is yet another example of our industry’s continued dedication to advance public safety and enhance the security and protection of our customers," said Steve Largent, president of CTIA, which represents the wireless carriers.
Updated at 3:37 p.m.