Stolen mobiles story

I was just on Sky TV to debunk today’s initiative from the Home Office. The Home Secretary claimed that more rapid notification of stolen phone IMEIs between UK operators would have a significant effect on street crime.

I’m not so sure. Most mobiles stolen in the UK go abroad – the cheap ones to the third world and the flash ones to developed countries whose operators don’t subsidise handsets. As for the UK secondhand market, most mobiles can be reprogrammed (even though this is illegal). Lowering their street price is, I expect, a hard problem – like raising the street price of drugs.

What the Home Office might usefully do is to crack down on mobile operators who continue to bill customers after they have reported their phones stolen and cancelled their accounts. That is a scandal. Government’s role in problems like this is to straighten out the incentives and to stop the big boys from dumping risk on their customers.

4 thoughts on “Stolen mobiles story

  1. A couple of years ago I attended a talk by the police officer leading the Mobile Phone Crime Unit. He made the point that although there was a certain amount of “mugging”, two major contributors to the crime wave were “bullying” (kids stealing from other kids — and it just happened to be a mobile that was stolen, in other circumstances it might be backpacks or dinner money) and “insurance fraud” (people who dropped their mobile into the loo and found insurance didn’t cover accidental damage would then report it stolen).

    Once you appreciate that “mugging” is only a part of the problem then IMEI blocking can be seen to be only a part of the solution!

    It’s also worth noting that IMEI blocking isn’t even an especially new solution… in Feb 2002, the claim was that this would be in place within six weeks.

  2. What surprised me back in December 2001 when my phone was stolen was
    that the police had no central record of stolen phones, nor did they
    want to record the IMEI. As phones have the IMEI printed inside them
    as well as containing the number electronically it would be fairly
    obvious from physical examination of a phone that it has either been
    stolen or ‘reprogrammed’ if they had a central list of stolen phones.
    With time and much skill it would be possible to change both the
    label and the electronic copy of the IMEI undetectably to a different
    valid number, but during this time the thief is in possession of an
    identifiably stolen or illegally altered item. It would seem useful
    to me to know whether a mobile is stolen whenever an arrest or search
    uncovers one. With the Home Office taking an interest in the IMEI does
    that mean the police now have a central record of stolen phones and
    their IMEIs which they can easily query in this fashion?

  3. Hi,

    What about going further than the current EIR solution with a truly international CEIR? And making life of street gangsters harder by using next-generation security (Trusted computering) to prevent IMEI reprogramming? Though I agree with you that the solution is manyfold, I think technically there’s already a lot that can be done.

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