How Difficult Is It To Reactivate A Stolen iPhone? Not Very

Picture this: The phones rings, and you check the caller ID and see your girlfriend’s number. With great anticipation you answer the call, but then a gruff masculine “Hello” bellows from the ear piece. What the…? It sounds awkward but that’s what happened to James. His girlfriend’s iPhone was stolen a few weeks ago and the theft was reported to AT&T who had the phone deactivated. However, the new owner of the stolen iPhone had it reactivated and assumed the phone number of James’ girlfriend, thus deactivating James’ girlfriend’s replacement phone. How could this happen? James’ letter, inside…

About a month and a half ago my girlfriend sat down in a booth at the restaurant she manages and her iPhone slipped out of her pocket. She got up from the booth and went back to work when she noticed that it was missing. Upon returning to the booth it was occupied by two male patrons who when queried about the phone denied having seen it. We suspect it’s rather likely that one of the two of them pocketed it, after all who doesn’t want a free iPhone?

We contact AT&T and report the phone as stolen/missing and request that it be deactivated, which they are happy to do. Fast forward to last night she calls me up and explains that her new iPhone is reporting, “no service”. We’re both puzzled but I dismiss it as faulty hardware or just plain crappy signals…this is AT&T we’re talking about after all.

An hour later I decide to send her an SMS text to see if things are back to normal yet. Here’s where things get start to get interesting. I receive a call on my cell phone apparently from my girlfriend, the number matches and the iPhone loads up her picture. I answer assuming it’s her and I hear a male voice on the other end of the line. I do a double take and then inquire as to who this mystery man is. He explains that he’s Joe Blow from Victorville (more than 100 miles from where the phone was stolen/missing from) and that I’m texting him on, “his iPhone”. I explain to him that it isn’t his iPhone, it’s stolen property that was deactivated by AT&T the better part of 1.5 months ago.

Long story short is, he’s bummed his attempts to rip the phone off didn’t go so smoothly. He’s out $50 and feels like simply giving it back to us. Ok fine, whatever I say keep it. So here’s the meat of the story…

The phone was reported stolen, AT&T de-authorized the phone effectively taking it off the network and flagging it as missing/stolen. The reason my girlfriends phone stopped working yesterday is because somehow this kid managed to trot himself in to an AT&T store and got them to re-activate the stolen phone and in the process got her new phone de-activated!?

We had to call AT&T customer support and explain this whole situation to them. They promptly de-activated Joe Blow’s re-activated stolen iPhone but were unfortunately unable to put her legitimate iPhone back into service. We were forced to come into a branch store this morning and exchange the SIM card for a new one.

The agents at AT&T assert that they have no way to ascertain how it is that someone with NO personal information on my girlfriend was able to have her stolen cell phone re-activated 100+ miles away from home. I assert that a company the size of AT&T must have a fairly sophisticated system for cell phone activation and de-activation. They honestly can’t tell what store or branch the phone was re-activated at? They can’t tell us which sales associated knowingly re-activated a stolen phone on an existing customers account?

Thankfully he didn’t run up a big bill, we managed to get the phone shut off (for the 2nd time) in fairly short order. I’m still fuming however that some random Joe off the street can waltz into an AT&T branch or affiliate store and re-activate a phone reported stolen 1.5 months ago with little or no effort and ZERO paper trail (according to AT&T). Something stinks and I think it’s AT&T’s customer service…

We’re happy to hear you finally got it straightened out, James. Given the fact that iPhones are stolen every day, we would hope there would be more safeguards in place to prevent someone from activating a stolen phone with the same number. We also find it strange that AT&T can’t or won’t tell you where the stolen phone was activated. We’d like to see AT&T be more proactive when it comes to protecting its customers. iPhone theft is rampant enough without AT&T accommodating the thieves.

(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. induscreed says:

    Its a little confusing to me about the guy wanting to return the phone and being out $50.

  2. azntg says:

    Until everybody has an iPhone, I think I’ll stick with my nondescript, low profile, cheap candy bar phone that has wireless internet and SMS deactivated.

    Hopefully, it’ll deter some would-be thieves.

  3. katekate says:

    The guy who stole the phone really had a pretty stupid idea for a free iPhone, but because AT&T security is a joke, his stupid plan worked. Ridiculous.

    More reasons not to buy an iPhone!

  4. bravo369 says:

    there probably are checks but in this case, maybe it was just an employee who was very busy with customers and decided to just activate it and get the person out of the store as fast as possible.

  5. katekate says:

    @bravo369: Not an excuse. What’s to stop the same frazzled employee from giving out this woman’s personal information?

  6. @bravo369: That’s a pretty awful excuse. When you go to activate it, doesn’t it come up on the computer/phone/whatever as “missing” or “stolen”? If it doesn’t, then I suppose it isn’t the clerk’s fault, but the fault of whoever was supposed to deactivate it. This sort of thing is awful and suggests gross incompetence.

  7. weakdome says:

    This article has the best picture ever. That guy’s expression is priceless!

  8. Caroofikus says:

    “after all who doesn’t want a free iPhone”


  9. johnva says:

    @induscreed: I’d also like a clarification of what that paragraph. Why would a) the guy want to give it back, and b) would the OP offer to GIVE the thief the iPhone??? Maybe it’s just poorly written, but I really don’t get what he’s trying to convey there.

  10. snead says:

    “Long story short is, he’s bummed his attempts to rip the phone off didn’t go so smoothly. He’s out $50 and feels like simply giving it back to us. Ok fine, whatever I say keep it. So here’s the meat of the story…”

    Wait, back up. He wants to return it and you say, ‘whatever, keep our stolen $600 iPhone’?? Does anyone else find this part of the story odd too?

  11. johnva says:

    @snead: Yes, see above. I’m hoping it’s just cryptic writing.

  12. donnie5 says:

    I would let the thief keep it. I would not want some creepy phone stealer knowing where I lived so they could return it…

  13. Jay Slatkin says:

    @induscreed: I inferred that the guy who ended up with the stolen iPhone paid $50 for it.

  14. Aladdyn says:

    Although you can never underestimate how stupid thieves can be, I doubt someone who stole the phone would call back about someone texting him and give his name and location. Whoever stole it probably sold it cheaply to the guy who called the OP, who was then out $50? And if he really did buy it for only 50 dollars he probably knew something was fishy anyway, felt guilty about it and wanted to give it back. Hows that for some good assuming?

  15. Imaginary_Friend says:

    After she asked the guys at the restaurant whether they saw her phone, she should have called her own number and busted them red-handed.

    Stupid stuff like this from AT&T is exactly why I never store passwords or check my bank accounts from my iPhone. Their incompetence knows no bounds.

  16. B says:

    @snead: Yea, I was thrown off by that part, too. I guess they already bought a replacement, but still.

  17. johnva says:

    @donnie5: Why on earth would you have to let them know where you live in order to get it returned? If they truly did want to return it, they could meet you in a public place. Still might be somewhat unsafe.

    @Aladdyn: Yes, this seems more likely to me. But still, who would let even the stolen property buyer KEEP a stolen iPhone if they were voluntarily offering to return it? I sure wouldn’t.

  18. Nighthawke says:

    I was a sales rep working Sprint, custie comes in buying a new phone to replace the one that was stolen. I asked them if they had reported it. The answer being no, I jump on the line with Sprint CSR and we go through the motions to blacklist the phone’s ID. This done, on a whim I asked them where was the last call made from, the rep gives me it. On relaying it to the custie, they nod knowingly “We know who walked with it now”. I still got a phone sale, spiff and a attaboy from all around.

  19. darkryd says:

    That’s too bad.

    You’d think they’d do a better job of making sure stolen iphone’s cant be unlocked.

  20. darkryd says:

    @Nighthawke: now if Sprint could only improve their coverage…

  21. bravo369 says:

    @katekate: @generalhousewifery: hey, i’m not justifying it but he was wondering how this could happen. I was just giving a scenario. I worked as a cashier and I was told during training that usually scammers will try to trick you when it’s really busy and you’re flustered.

  22. uberbucket says:

    $50 Deactivated/stolen iPhone = way cheap iPod Touch.

  23. jkpwife says:

    I would say the guy that stole the iphone either works for AT&T or knows someone that does.

  24. chgoeditor says:

    I was in an AT&T store this weekend when some kids walked in and stole an iPhone…alarms started ringing, but the staff didn’t even react (except to turn off the alarm). The guy who helped me actually said they’d had about a dozen iPhones stolen, always by the same kids. I asked, “They can’t activate it, can they?” and was told that they could easily take it into another AT&T store and get it activiated. If AT&T can’t even keep thieves from activating the phone stolen from their own stores, what makes you thing they can keep them from activating phones stolen from customers?

  25. scoobydoo says:

    The sad part is that GSM networks actually have a way of blacklisting stolen phones, but none of the US operators feel the need to implement this feature. Other countries (like the UK) are pretty strict with phone IMEI (serial number) blacklisting. Phone stolen and blacklisted means the physical phone won’t be able to be used again until it is delisted.

  26. Shadowman615 says:

    Perhaps the AT&T clerk who reactivated the phone is part of this scam?

  27. Shadowman615 says:

    @johnva: I agree, I can’t believe the guy told him “Ok fine, whatever…keep it.” I hope his girlfriend kicked him in the nuts for that. There’s no reason to be a pushover.

  28. ChuckECheese says:

    @Shadowman615: @Shadowman615: I’m with you on this. $50 might be enough to get an AT&T employee to look the other way.

    Maybe the owner doesn’t want the phone because he’d have to go to Victorville to get it. Have you been to Victorville?

    Maybe the owner doesn’t want it because it has thief germs on it. Just saying.

  29. SacraBos says:

    @snead: If you have insurance, he/girlfriend isn’t really out $600 and they already have a replacement (newer!) phone. And since it’s “listed” as stolen (FWIW), they couldn’t really use it anyway.

  30. Rachael says:


    I agree, that was the first thing I thought of. Why not call your phone right away? Maybe her phone was off, though.

  31. barty says:

    @azntg: Same here. That’s why I stick with the cheap/free phones. Nobody wants to steal it.

    Why in the hell did he tell the guy he could keep it though? At the very least, if I’ve got the guy’s personal info, I’m going to turn him in for theft by receiving. Someone can’t be that stupid to think someone selling an iPhone for $50 isn’t trying to unload stolen property.

  32. Buran says:

    No matter what phone you are using:

    Activate your password lock right now and lock your SIM, if you are using a GSM phone (AT&T/T-Mobile).

    Phone is unusable without the keyboard unlock, and when the SIM itself is locked (preferably with a DIFFERENT PIN) they can’t just put it in another phone and ring up a bill.

    So if you lose a locked phone, all you’re out is the phone itself.

  33. Buran says:

    @barty: They’ll steal it anyway. “Ooooh, free calls to Nigeria!”

  34. calvinneal says:

    Sounds like an employee was in on the scam!

  35. Lucky225 says:

    It’s called social engineering, or he knows someone that works at AT&T. I highly doubt he had the balls to go inside an AT&T store and get it reactivated (they have cameras). More then likely he social engineered all the account information and/or had an employee look it up, called AT&T customer service, claimed he was your g/f (believe it or not reps can’t question why Suzy is a male or sounds like one, it’s rude customer service), said he found the phone and wanted it reactivated since all his contacts were stored on it.

  36. RandomZero says:

    @scoobydoo: Not true. When I worked for Nextel/Sprint, they had a “negative file” system. While a phone that was activated before being neg filed could still be used (we were supposed to remove them from the account), nothing could be activated/reactivated on an account once it was in there. To get off of the neg file required proof of ID and (if not the original owner yourself) a written, corroborated statement of how you got your hands on it, sent to the fraud team. It was a known fact within the company that anobody who bought one of our phones on eBay was essentially throwing money out the window for precisely this reason, and failed insurance scams were also common.

    That said, it didn’t stop a LOT of unscrupulous dealers or questionable “clients” from calling in with a box full of phones in front of them and rattling off serial numbers until they found one nobody had bothered to report, and it DID take a day or two to get neg filed unless you had insurance…

  37. guroth says:


    I had an old nextel brick phone, no camera no gps, small screen etc, AND the screen was broken (completely broken, it lit up because of the backlights but no picture) and it STILL got stolen

    thieves are ruthless

  38. ChuckECheese says:

    I guess the OP could call the police, but I know there are things they’d rather be doing than looking for phone thieves. Then again, maybe the police in Victorville aren’t so busy.

  39. mike says:

    I think AT&T has some explaining to do. Unless they find the employee, they could be charged with possessing stolen property at least.

    I totally want an iPhone…Don’t want the AT&T branded cell service.

  40. BeerFox says:

    My wife’s T-Mobile Wing was stolen about a month back. She called the next day to deactivate it and report it stolen. It turned up a couple weeks later in a drug rehab center, where one of the counselors noticed it. It was returned to us, at which point we noticed it was active; not only had it been used extensively for calls/texts, the thief had added folks to her Fave Five!

    When my wife called T-Mobile to ask what gives, it turned out that the thief had somehow called up the next day to cancel the inactivation (we’re still not sure how, since the phone should’ve been *inactive*). Saying, “Nevermind, wasn’t stolen,” was apparently sufficient. Hey, she had the handset, she must be the legit owner! Bang-up job on security there, T-Mo.

  41. Lucky225 says:


    Gotta love customer service lol. As for the fave five, i would have called them to find out who the theif was :P

  42. puka_pai says:

    Why not call your phone right away? Maybe her phone was off, though.

    Since she was at work, she probably had it set to vibrate. A lot of retail workplaces tell you that you can’t have your phone with you when you’re on the clock, but if it’s set to vibrate and it’s in your pocket (as hers was) they’ll ignore it.

    My kid occasionally forgets to set his ringer back on and then can’t find his phone in the house the next day. We play “Shh! Tag” until we find it.

  43. Buran says:

    @sohmc: I’m planning to unlock and sell mine when the 3G model is out. For now it’s just jailbroken since that is reversible (unlocking isn’t, not really) and I was already an AT&T customer so I didn’t see the need to unlock it.

  44. ShadowFalls says:

    You wouldn’t be responsible for the bill regardless. You properly reported it stolen, and with AT&T’s negligence, it was re-activated and used.

    AT&T is clearly at fault, that and the dirty thief. Sounds messed up how they don’t even know what place re-activates phones.

    For all we know, a buddy of his did it and could do it again, or someone works in a store who was paid to do it.

  45. iEddie says:

    @Buran: Unlocking is reversible (except for IPSF if you don’t have the original seczone). Just restore the baseband to its orignal state – you can do that using bbupdater.

  46. mikecolione says:

    The iPhone doesn’t get activated in the store. The “gentleman” would have went it and got a SIM card without any account access. He then would have had to go home, and plug the phone into iTunes using the ladies information. Once a SIM card is deactivated, you have to get a new one, which is why she had to go get a new SIM at the store. So, either the theif knew the necessary info, or the story is made up.

    By the way, every time an account is accessed, a note is placed on the account with certain things:

    1. The rep that accessed the account.

    2. Photo ID info (type of ID and expiration date.

    3. What was done on the account.

    However, with the iPhone as I mentioned, certain changes are required to be made through iTunes, which puts an Apple ID (standard accross the company).

    Either way, I’m calling BS. Either They knew each other, or the story is made up.

  47. Difdi says:

    AT&T takes phone theft very seriously.

  48. scottboone says:

    The long and short of this story is that AT&T does not track phones that have been reported to them as stolen. They do not track them, they do not blacklist them, and they will allow them to be used on their network after the theft.

    I had a phone stolen a year ago, and not even with a police report would AT&T agree to blacklist my phone. It is a sham, but follow the money and see why AT&T doesn’t care. I finally got a Rep that said he’d “place a note on my account”, because apparently some reps will do searches on IMEIs before activating phones…but it isn’t policy.

  49. rd9116 says:

    As a former AT&T rep here’s how lost stolen phone process works. As far as the process goes for reactivating a lost or stolen phone i can tell you exactly how the process with AT&T is supposed to work. As per FCC Regulations the customer must first be verified with personal identification and be the account holder or an authorized user on the account. If a phone is reported lost or stolen a lost stolen feature is put on the account deactingivating the SIM card. If your girlfriend had reactivated a new iPhone this feature wouldve had to be removed otherwise she wouldnt be able to use her phone. AT&T nor any other carrier has ability to disable the phone itself, only the SIM card. There are security measures in place via checking for driver’s licenses, which evidentally a rep who should be repremanded over looked. Since the lost stolen feature had been removed all the theif had to do was obtain a new active sim card which disables ur GF. Which he shouldnt have been able to obtain but evidentally someone overlooked the ID part

  50. JamesR. says:

    I didn’t realize until today that The Consumerist had run my story. I’m posting to provide some clarifications regarding the comments here about the guys desire to return the phone despite being out $50.

    I didn’t include all the details because I didn’t feel like they were germane to AT&T’s shortcomings in this matter.

    The individual first suggested that maybe I could pay him the $50.00 he paid for the phone to get it back. I told him I might be up for that but upon talking things over with my GF we both agreed to just let the punk keep the phone. It was fairly beat up, had been dropped several times, dings, dents, scratches on the glass etc. There was even an area where the digitizer didn’t really register your touch all that well. Long story short is any desire to physically get the phone back were as a matter of principle, not because we intended to re-activate that phone and begin using it again.

    The kid never ended up calling on the weekend, he was probably pretty upset that his re-activation efforts were thwarted the same day.

    My sense of things now is that the guy simply called to feel me out, to see just how much $$$ we might cough up to get it back. When he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear he played it like we were going to meet up then simply dropped the ball on his end of the deal.


    James R.

  51. JamesR. says:

    @johnva: @johnva:

    Ohh hell no, I didn’t let em know where we live…we’re not stupid ya know ;-) The dipstick apparently comes into this area (used to live here) from time to time and claimed he wanted to meet up Fri/Sat night while he was visiting his friends.


    James R.

  52. BigBadJohn says:

    I had a stolen iPhone from a Coffee Bean when I got up to put some sugar in my coffee, sucks!
    I reported it stolen for free at this website: damn thief…hope that fat butt get busted.