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Phone thieves bypassing security systems

Published:Monday | April 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Inspector Warren Williams

Tyrone Thompson, Staff Reporter

the International Mobile Equipment Identification (IMEI) of a smart
phone reported stolen was once thought to be an effective measure to
deter phone thieves. However this has changed in recent years as
criminals have found new ways to circumvent the security system in
Jamaica.In many cases, disarming a phone's IMEI mechanism - which the police say is similar to the chassis number of a motor vehicle - is as easy as taking the phone to a street-side technician, many of whom charge as little as $2,000 for their services.

Both Digicel and LIME began blocking phones reported stolen in 2008, in response to alarming levels of phone theft which at the time numbered 16,000 a month.

Inspector Warren Williams of the Organised Crime Investigative Division (OCID) explained that while his unit was aware that changing a mobile device’s IMEI was being done in some places around the world, he felt the practice was not widespread in Jamaica.

“Yes, you do have people who are changing them in other parts of the world and putting it up on Youtube for everyone but it is very difficult to change it because its electronically embedded and it's very rarely that you see this kind of thing in Jamaica," he said.

However David, a phone technician who specialises in unlocking phones, disagreed that the process was alien to Jamaica.

“That is a daily thing,” he said.

David told The Gleaner that numerous persons had visited his shop, located in downtown Kingston, to change the IMEI on phones they had 'acquired'.

“Ah no really my business weh dem want to get the phone from still, but yeah I have scenarios where people come and say them want it change everyday," he said.

David acknowledged that the process of changing the IMEI number on a mobile device is illegal in countries such as the United States and Britain, which maintain an IMEI database among the operating mobile networks.

In these countries, those found tampering with the IMEI numbers could face a sentence of five-six months in prison.

"In other countries, the field that I am in is a dangerous job because you can get up to six months for changing IMEI, because it's illegal over there. It should be illegal out here too, but we as a third world country don't follow up that.”

Williams admitted that the process of changing the IMEI on mobile devices was not illegal in Jamaica, but he felt a device which had the IMEI changed would be of little value.

"In Jamaica there is no definite legislation against that for now, but while it is possible to change the numbers on the phone, that device will not be able to operate on the service providers network as there are ways and means of detecting it.”

Numerous requests were made of both major telecommunications firms for comment on the issue of changing IMEI numbers, however there was no response.

Williams noted that mobile phone companies do pass on sensitive information regarding possible phone theft to his division.

“By law they are required to provide communications data for investigative purposes, as the Telecommunications Act stipulates that this is a condition for them being able to operate in the country. So once that information is available, law enforcement can then use it to their benefit, because one has to remember the service provider is not in the business of fighting crime, they are in the business of making money.”

David was however not concerned about the mobile companies ability to track a device for which he had changed the number.

“When we change the number, Digicel or LIME just sees the phone as a new device, that's all and so them not going to block it, the phone works same way."

He was however aware that crime fighters might be able to track a stolen phone through GPS locator apps that help to locate some smart phones.

“Yeah man, even at my shop here people carry phone fi get locks off it and police come and say they track it to this location. I don't know if is the owner track it or is police themselves track the phone here but, yeah, it's been done.”

Williams admitted that locations applications installed could be used to access the location of these devices if they are reported stolen.

“Phones are being created now with different features and the JCF looks at ways things evolve and try to see how it can assist crime fighting. Things like GPS apps and Google latitude, I would encourage people to use these apps because once this data is available it can be used by law enforcement.”

David was in agreement that there were applications that could not only help locate a lost or stolen phone but also apps that could protect its data.

“It all depends on the type of phones still, but there are apps like BlackBerry Protect and iCloud for iPhones, that you can use to locate your phone if it's stolen. Once you create an account you can log in to that account from a computer and wipe sensitive information off the phone. You can even make it play a loud noise, or you can send a message to the phone say ‘this phone is stolen we’re watching you’ all these things.”