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Advantage Consumer: Dealing with cellphone thefts

There are more ways to survive a cellphone theft. But the TRAI has been lax in dealing with this problem. Pushpa Girimaji tells us more...

india Updated: Jan 25, 2008 21:05 IST

Refilling your contact numbers or blocking calls is not enough. There are more ways to survive a cellphone theft. But the TRAI has been lax in dealing with this problem.

Cellphone theft is a major problem in India, yet precious little is being done to contain this menace. One can understand the enormity of the problem from the fact that some time ago the Bangalore Police had reported that in Bangalore city alone, on an average, 300 cases of mobile snatching and theft were registered every month. But even this number does not tell the real story because the police department does not register all complaints and not every person who loses a cellphone bothers to complain. On a conservative estimate, I am sure hundreds of thousands of mobile instruments are stolen in India every year.

When a (GSM) cell phone is lost, the first step that the consumer takes is to call up the service provider and ask the company to block the SIM (Subscriber Identify Module) that (a) the thief does not get hold of the data on the mobile (b) does not abuse the connection for illegal activities and (c) does not run up a huge bill on the connection. But blocking the SIM is not adequate. A thief who is interested in selling the mobile and does not want to be traced will hardly bother to use the existing SIM on the phone. He will just throw it away.

Law enforcement authorities around the world have realized that one way of tackling the crime is to block the instrument itself so that it cannot be used at all, even with a new SIM card. This is possible because of the unique identity number that every cell phone has. Called the International Mobile Equipment Identity ( IMEI) number, this is embedded in the instrument. If you dial *#06# on your mobile , the cell phone screen will display a 15-digit number. This is the instrument's identity. Once a cell phone is lost or stolen and the consumer reports it, the IMEI number can be blocked across all GSM networks so that the instrument cannot be used even with a new SIM.

The blocked number can then be put on an Internet site so that any person wishing to buy a used phone can check and make sure that he is not buying a stolen, blocked phone. This acts as a major disincentive for the thief. In order to block the number across all networks, the cell phone service providers basically need to create a Central Equipment Identity Register that would enable all mobile phone operators to share the IMEI numbers of all lost or stolen mobile phones. Since tech-savvy thieves can re-programme the handset, several countries have also passed laws to make such reprogramming a cognizable offence.

However, in India, network providers are not willing to do their bit to tackle mobile theft and block the IMEI number of a stolen set. In fact they have a long list of excuses for not doing it. So also the regulator, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, who came up with a consultation paper on tackling mobile handset thefts way back in 2004, but did not pursue it.

Consumer pressure can however change all this. In fact, the absence of a policy to curb mobile theft and regulate sale of used phones have emboldened thieves. This has been compounded by police inaction in tracing lost mobiles.

Today, a number of software solutions are available to track a stolen mobile. Depending on the compatibility of the operating system of the mobile phone, many of them can be downloaded from the Internet for a small price. Several manufacturers have also used mobile trackers as an added feature to sell their handset.

When a mobile handset is stolen and the SIM is replaced, the mobile tracking software sends out a message to two pre-determined mobile numbers or a mobile number and an e-mail ID (these numbers or the e-mail ID should be fed into the mobile -- or else the tracker is useless), giving the new number of the SIM card.

This is done without any notification on the screen, so the thief does not get to know it. But in order to trace the mobile and catch the culprit, you need the help of the service provider and the police. But neither is willing to do that now in India. A consumer from Bangalore, who had installed one such software, was thrilled when he got the message giving the new SIM number. This was the second time his expensive mobile had been stolen and this time he thought he would recover it. But despite giving the police this information, they did nothing, he says.

Given the large number of thefts involving cell phones, I do not see why manufacturers, service providers and the police cannot come together and create a mechanism for blocking stolen mobile phones and also for tracing lost or stolen phones, at least (to begin with) where the subscriber has installed a handset tracker. And this is where the regualtor comes in.

It is high time the TRAI addressed this issue and insisted, in order to safeguard the interest of consumer, that all manufacturers incorporate mobile trackers in the handsets. Absence of the regulator's intervention in the matter and a comprehensive policy to tackle mobile theft and protect the interests of consumers has only given fillip to those who specialize in stealing mobiles and selling them.

Senior journalist, consumer affairs specialist