Why it pays to steal a phone in India (Comment)

December 25th, 2008 - 10:12 am ICT by IANS  

The ban on mobile phones that have no identification number, also called International Mobile Equipment Identity or IMEI number, is too little, too late. Even now, anyone in India can steal a phone, or buy and use a stolen mobile.The Department of Telecommunications (DoT), in a directive, has blocked phones that do not have an IMEI number. The 15-digit IMEI number is unique to every mobile handset, and even some satellite phones. You can usually see it by typing *#06# on most branded phones.

This would mean that 25 million users of cheap Chinese knock-offs - that don’t have IMEI numbers - might get disconnected Jan 6, or March 31 if that gets extended. (If this directive had come two years ago, we wouldn’t have to worry about millions of affected users.)

First, about 26/11. Maybe the terrorists did use Chinese phones. It makes little difference. The bigger issue was that they used legitimate SIM cards, bought with fake identity papers.

Second, some irony. While 25 million users of cheap Chinese handsets, most having bought them in good faith and without knowledge of IMEI numbers, will get disconnected, millions of cellphone thieves and their customers will continue with phones without fear of persecution by police or service provider.

The industry has developed software that can be uploaded to a phone, giving it a unique IMEI number, if it doesn’t already have one. The software is being tested.

But at some point, perhaps March 31, the IMEI-less users would have to be blocked. Still, they would have got advance warning, and time to act. Telcos can SMS them reminders: it’s easy to pick out the ones without IMEI numbers from caller data records.

A second idea: Let the government use this opportunity to come up with a citizen ID. Use Rs.300 crore (Rs.3 billion) from the money collected for the Universal Service Obligation fund from all telcos for this.

The problem is the very few organisations that can drive such citizen projects, like the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), do not have the time. So government agencies like the Election Commission, the ITO and food and civil supplies will continue with a dozen different citizen identities, wasting billions.

But the IMEI-less phone is not the only or even the main issue. As long as regular branded phones (with IMEI numbers) get stolen and re-used without trouble, terrorists can buy them much cheaper than the IMEI-free clone phones.

Because service providers are so reluctant to go after a thief, or a customer who bought a stolen phone, it’s really quite safe to steal a phone in India.

Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI) members’ track record in tracking IMEI is poor.

A Wikipedia entry says this of the IMEI number: “It’s used by the GSM network to identify valid devices and therefore can be used to stop a stolen phone from accessing the network. The owner whose phone is stolen can call his network provider and instruct it to block the phone using its IMEI number.”

That is, if you lose your phone, you could call your network provider and it could block that IMEI number so it cannot be used with any other SIM card, or flag it as “hot”.

‘Could’ is the operative word. Actually, the provider won’t. Its stance is: “We do not want to harass a customer who has bought a second-hand phone in good faith”. Even if that phone is stolen.

Can you imagine that applying to cars? You buy a stolen car, and the authorities say, oh, poor fellow, let him keep it, he bought it in good faith?

Now, telcos might say the phone could be used on any other network, but in this day of roaming interconnect and settlement, tackling that is no big deal. A credit card company does not tell you that a lost card will be blocked only if the thief uses it on ‘their network’.

Oh, and an Airtel or a Vodafone will not block a stolen phone even on their own network, unless they’re pressured by the police.

If you thought things would be easier with CDMA (code division multiple access) providers, where there are no SIM cards to change, it’s actually worse. Tata Indicom refused to block a very poor painter’s phone which was stolen; he finally had to change the number he had got printed on his card. He went through a police report, but no luck. I tried to help him, but couldn’t budge Tata Indicom.

This, then, is the bigger danger, but the one that is easier to tackle.

The good news is that the police have begun to act on FIRs (first information reports) filed on stolen handsets. I know of a case in Delhi where a handset was recovered in a few days through the IMEI number. The bad news is that less than one in 10 phone thefts gets even reported, let alone an FIR registered.

So if directed by the police to track a stolen handset, the telcos can do it.

On March 31, 2009, they should block not only the IMEI-free handsets but also stolen handsets, after reporting theft (when a handset reported stolen turns up with another SIM card number, they can report that, before blocking it.)

And the COAI should create a database for stolen handsets, that would get blocked, at least in India.

Self-regulation? I must be dreaming. So I hope the DoT issues the diktat to block stolen handsets along with IMEI-free handsets. This will put the squeeze on the grey market, on thieves, and, in a small way, on terror.

And the next time you lose a phone, take the trouble to report it to the police. You might just get it back, and deprive the grey market. Or a terrorist.

(25.12.2008-Prasanto K. Roy is president and chief editor for ICT publications with CyberMedia, a leading technology and speciality media house. He can be reached at pkr@cybermedia.co.in)

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