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In Search Of A Lost Phone

Yes, you’ll lose it. Yes, it can be recovered. No, it probably won’t be. Here’s why it pays to steal a phone in India, writes Prasanto K Roy.

tech reviews Updated: Feb 07, 2009 19:04 IST
Star Tech | Prasanto K Roy

I got many emails after last week’s column on how to prepare for the day you’ll lose your phone. (You will lose it. It is written)

Revision: Make a backup on your PC, or on a free web service like Zyb.com.
Readers wrote: I lost my phone (and didn’t back up). Can I get it back?

Well, yes. For your phone has a serial number, which is tracked and recorded. If it’s a GSM phone with a SIM card, it has an ‘IMEI’ number. This 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity number is unique to your handset. You can see it by typing *#06# on most branded phones.

Every time you make a call, this IMEI number and your subscriber (SIM) number are both recorded by your service provider.

Now, if someone finds your lost phone, or steals it, you’ll report the loss, and the SIM card will be deactivated. The new user will then insert a new SIM card. When he next uses your phone, it will show a different SIM number, along with your old handset IMEI number.

Perfect! Within seconds, your service provider can see that your handset is now being used by Mr Kuldep Sharma, phone number 98991..., address...

But call your service provider, and they’ll tell you to go fly a kite, or get a court order, or a specific police request.

Why won’t Airtel or Vodafone help you? Because they don’t gain anything by doing so. They’d have to dedicate staff and resources. Instead, you can simply go out and buy a new phone in a few hours, and continue the service. And someone else will get your handset cheap or free... a potential subscriber...

Service providers say “We don’t want to harass a customer who may have bought an old handset in good faith.” Great. What if Sunil Mittal had his Mercedes stolen, and the cops said, Oh, we know who has it now, but poor fellow, let him keep it, he bought it from the thief in good faith?

Now, if you really want that phone back: go to your nearest police station, and file a complaint. If the police want to help, they can track and recover your phone, if it is used again. (In cases of crime or terror, handsets are tracked in minutes.)

A friend lost a phone in Delhi, filed a police complaint, and got a call the next day from the police: his phone was recovered! But getting it back meant visits to the district court... so painful that he says he won’t bother with the cops the next time.

What if the new user switches service providers? No matter. Service providers interconnect for billing ‘settlement’ and roaming. It’s not difficult to share a ‘hotlist’ of stolen handsets. This can be done across countries too, though most stolen phones stay within India.

The case of the fake IMEI
Tracking uses the IMEI number for GSM phones, or the ESN (electronic serial number) for CDMA handsets. Not all phones have these numbers. Over 25 million cheap Chinese-made handsets in India sport no IMEI number, or use fake numbers.

The 26/11 terrorists in Mumbai used mobiles without IMEI numbers, prompting a DoT directive to service providers to block phones without an IMEI number in January. This was extended to March 31.

Not so easy. They can block a sans-IMEI call, but what if it’s a fake number? There’s no easy way of telling, when a valid IMEI has been cloned.

An industry association now has a service that can update phones with IMEI numbers if they don’t have them, for Rs 100 a pop. (Security alert: could it also be used to change an IMEI number?)

But note the irony. While 25 million users of cheap handsets (who probably don’t know much about IMEI numbers) may get disconnected, 50 million stolen handsets will continue service.

If the telcos are serious about helping to tackle crime and terror, they should block not only IMEI-free handsets, but also stolen handsets, after letting the police try and recover them.

The operators association can create a database, a hotlist for stolen handsets. These would get tracked, then blocked. They could bring down the million-plus monthly mobile thefts by two-thirds.

They won’t do it. It will take a government diktat to operators to block stolen handsets, along with sans-IMEI handsets (and help squeeze the grey market, and, in a smaller way, crime, and terror).

When you next lose your phone, report it to the police. You might just get it back, and deprive the grey market. Or a terrorist. And help the police crack down on one of the many mobile-phone-theft chains out there.

Prasanto K Roy (pkr@cybermedia.co.in) is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Voice&Data and Living Digital