Stemming the tide of stolen handsets


The problem of lost or stolen handsets is still a major headache for the police and UK mobile industry bodies. Despite an industry blacklist of stolen mobile phones, the trade in them continues to thrive.

There is a ready market for secondhand, no-questions-asked mobiles in the darker recesses of the sales channel, despite the best efforts of the industry. Increasingly, mobile phones are objects of desire, and incidents of mobile phone crime are commonplace; the public is targeted in the street, kids are bullied in the playground.

So what is the industry doing to tackle the problem?

Quite a lot, reckons Nokia UK head of communications Mark Squires, although he argues it is now the handset vendors’ responsibility to make it as difficult as possible for the trade in blacklisted handsets to continue.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve made it all-but-impossible to reprogram the IMEI [serial number] of our handsets. The serial number lock is now buried in the ASIC chipsets at the heart of the mobile,” he says.

According to Squires this radical solution, which has also been adopted by a number of other manufacturers, has stopped the practice of reprogramming dead in its tracks.

On top of this, since the late 1990s, Squires says Nokia has been communicating the steps that need to be taken when a customer reports their handset lost or stolen via the Nokia Academy, where dealer and retail sales staff are trained in Nokia-focused mobile sales.

The hackers always win out

The problem with handset protection systems, even such as coding the handset serial number into the heart of the mobile, is that, no matter how complex the system, hackers will always find a way to beat the blocks eventually, as Squires admits.

“The current ASIC chip block system is highly robust, but it’s only a matter of time before it gets beaten,” he says. “The key question is whether it’s worth the hackers’ time and effort to reprogram this new generation of mobiles.”

The networks agree the industry’s efforts to stem the flow of lost and stolen handsets is paying off. Kevin England, O2 head of technology, security and government liaison, says O2 research shows that, of 2,000 handsets that are blacklisted for any reason, just 27 find their ways back onto the streets for re-use with a new SIM.

He confirms Squires’ assertion that handset manufacturers are working to make it virtually impossible to re-programme the serial numbers of mobile phones. “There’s no reason today for an IMEI to be re-programmed – no reason whatsoever,” he says.

England adds that, in the case of O2, where a mobile is reported lost or stolen to O2 staff, the serial number of the last-used handset that held the lost or stolen SIM is logged on the O2 database.

“We don’t tend to use IMEI data logged when the handset is sold, as mistakes can happen. It is much better to pluck the serial number from the network when it was last used with a given SIM card,” he explains.

Interestingly, England remarks that around 20 per cent of handsets reported lost or stolen are subsequently ‘found’ by their owners, who then register the fact with the network operator.

“There are many reasons for it, and it is important to have a mechanism in the reporting system that allows us to unlock a serial number again,” he says.

It is one of the reasons a global database of lost or stolen serial numbers will find it tough to launch. The administrative issues are too great, suggests England, saying: “The UK database comprises around three million lost or stolen handsets, whilst Italy has around five million.

“Administering a complete international database is not going to be easy and there’s also the question of who picks up the tab.”

He continues: “Sometimes there are problems with handsets being blacklisted when they shouldn’t be. This is down to human error, but it is something that happens. You can solve the problem within the UK, but it could be a serious headache with international blacklisting – T-Mobile Germany might come to us and say, ‘why have you blacklisted one of our best customers?’ How do we unravel something like that?”

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