Operators failing to defeat box-breakers


Box breaking alive and well as staff defy head office rules on bulk buying

The networks and major retailers are powerless to prevent box breaking.

This is the finding of an undercover investigation by Mobile News, which reveals shop staff are routinely selling prepay handsets to cash customers, destined to be unlocked and shipped abroad.

Had Mobile News actually purchased everything offered to us, we would have spent £76,742 on 254 devices in one single day.

Box breaking is understood to cost UK operators more than £300 million a year in lost revenues. Yet operators deny the practice is a serious problem. They claim procedures are in place to remove the risk.

Our investigation indicates these procedures are flawed.

Posing as a tourist from Zimbabwe, our undercover investigator contacted and visited 23 stores with the intention of buying quantities of high-tier handsets such as the iPhone 4, BlackBerry Curve 8520 and the HTC Desire. These are specifically targeted for overseas trade.

We made it clear the devices were not intended for UK usage and would be exported.

O2, Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile, Three, Asda and Phones 4U shops all broke company rules to fulfil our order request. Staff typically required payments by cash and different names to register handsets. Or, we had to make multiple visits to the same store throughout the day or during the week.

Our biggest success was with Phones 4U. In Tooting, South London, the store manager over-ruled his staffer’s refusal to sell us 15 BlackBerry 8520s. When we said they would be exported we were allowed to buy 20 units. The Phones 4U Camden store said we could buy as many as we wanted.

The Orange stores in Camden, North London and Manchester’s Trafford Centre agreed to sell us 25 BlackBerry Curve 8520 handsets. An O2 store in West London said it would sell us one high-end device every day.

The Three stores in Wood Green, North London and Tunbridge Wells agreed to sell us 16 BlackBerrys between them. A T-Mobile store in Ipswich offered us nine handsets, provided we paid in cash and used three different names.

Vodafone doesn’t allow calls direct to its stores, but its customer service operator insisted we could buy 10 handsets from any of its stores.

It didn’t get better with the independents. Guls Communication in Stratford, East London offered us 20 SIM-free iPhone 4 handsets for £530 each with a box, or £420 without. Nearby Easy Link offered us 100 iPhone 4 handsets for £420 each.

Only Carphone Warehouse and Chitter Chatter resisted our requests for kit entirely.

For the full investigation see Mobile News issue 490 (June 6, 2011).

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