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Mystery of Bengaluru’s stolen mobile phones

Sharath (name changed) was passing through Mahatma Gandhi Circle on Bengaluru’s M G Road in an autorickshaw when two bike-borne people snatched his iPhone 12 and sped away.

“I went to the police station and gave a written complaint. No First Information Report (FIR) was registered, though, as the cops assured me they could find the phone without registering an FIR. I showed the cops that the phone was moving from one location to another and was live the whole time. But to my shock, no action was taken,” Sharath told DH.

He could track the phone from other Apple devices. The phone was live for the first 24 hours after being stolen. After a day, it went offline and was visible only when switched on. He made several trips to the police station but lost hope. “The phone’s last location was in Bangladesh,” he added.

Reports suggest that cell phone thefts in Bengaluru shot up 450% in 2022. Phone theft is a most common crime, often not taken seriously enough.

According to CCRB data DHaccessed, there have been 292 cases of phone robbery in Bengaluru from January 1, 2023, till October 30, 2023. 110 phones were robbed in the Bengaluru West Zone and 182 in the East Zone. This year, the police recovered 77 and 85 phones in West and East Zones, respectively.The police claim that phone snatching incidents rose in 2022, but have come down due to tightened vigilance.

Well-placed sources suggest that around 15,000 phones were stolen or taken in Bengaluru Southeast alone, with approximately 350 phones recovered.

Modus operandi

“The targets of phone snatching are generally women and older people,” said a senior police official. The incidents generally happen in the wee hours when people step out for morning walks or post-10 pm. He pointed out that the incidents are common on the outskirts of Bengaluru but can happen anywhere, especially in crowded places.

“Stolen cell phones can be disassembled and quickly resold, and there is a market for refurbished phones. For a high-end device like the latest iPhone 15 or a Samsung S23 Ultra, each component can fetch the thief tens of thousands of rupees. It isn’t easy to trace it once a phone is disassembled. These partscan be sold anywhere in India or abroad…” said C K Baba, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Southeast. High-end phones are rarely recovered as they are quickly disassembled.

DHspoke to many vendors of refurbished phones at the National Market in the city centre.Most of the stolen phones are sold in the grey market, mostly intact, but sometimes their parts are sold separately as replacements for other phones, said a second-hand phone dealer.

A high-end iPhone screen can alone fetch over Rs 50,000-60,000, depending on the model. A seller said it is extremely tough to determine which phone the screen belongs to when sold separately. However, because original screens are in high demand, few people check if they belong to a stolen phone. There are online registries but no one bothers to check.

“The offenders operate smartly, changing their modus operandi often. We need to act in real time when the phone is still on. It is difficult to trace the phone if the parts are disassembled, and the SIM is taken out,” said Baba. The chances of tracing a phone are higher if an amateur thief uses it, as they tend to use it more frequently.

“Most thieves work in a nexus. Sometimes, we encounter cases where a person has 20-30 stolen phones. When we crack the nexus, sometimes hundreds of phones are recovered at once,” a senior official said.

After cops seize the phones, they become the property of the court. Owners who have filed complaints are contacted to complete the necessary paperwork, after which they can collect their phones,” the senior police official said.

‘Not easy to change IMEI’

The police can make the stolen phone dysfunctional by blocking the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, unique for each phone. Once blocked, the device will not operate in the country where it was registered. When reported and blocked by one operator, all other operators from the country block the device as well. The service provider can unblock the device’s IMEI if the handset is recovered.

The city police use the Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR), a sophisticated portal that can block the IMEI number of a stolen phone, making it virtually useless for the thief.

The CEIR portal also issues an alert whenever a SIM card is inserted into the stolen phone, with the details of the SIM card, helping the police to trace the device/thief.

However, a second-hand phone dealer told DH that assigning a new IMEI to the phone is not rocket science. “That was common back in the day. Changing the IMEI number today is feasible, but it is not as prevalent as before. It is, however, inexpensive. You must locate the appropriate individual. Depending on the phone, you may have to pay anywhere from Rs 400 for less expensive phones to Rs 2,500 – 3,000 for iPhones.”

Changing IMEI was a common practice on low-cost Chinese handsets in the 2010s.Today’s phones, though cheaper, are more sophisticated and demand more expertise to work on. Sources say it is difficult to change the IMEI number these days. Yet, those who want to do it can find ways to do it.

According to a second-hand phone vendor, sales of stolen phones are low since legitimate clients demand the phone’s box and the bill, and it is mandatory to specify the IMEI number in both places. However, he admitted to selling phones without the box and the bill previously.

‘Lost vs robbed: Use the right term’

Deputy Commissioner of Police (Southeast zone) C K Baba said using right words is crucial while filing a complaint. If the phone is snatched, the offence is robbery, invoking Section 392 of the IPC, which is dealt with with utmost seriousness. However, theft—if the phone is stolen from a table when the person is not around or if the phone was pickpocketed— does not amount to robbery.

“If a citizen goes to the police and says the phone is lost/missing, it is not the same as a phone being snatched from the hands while the person is fully aware of it. So, it is important to use the right words in the complaint,” said Baba.

Another police officer said they often file a complaint and not an FIR when a stolen phone is inexpensive, as most owners of cheap phones are less concerned about recovering it. However, it is crucial to have a complaint filed to absolve oneself of the responsibility if the phone is used for a crime.

Srinivas Gowda,Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime – II), toldDHthat CCTVs are mainly used to identify criminals, whereas technology is used to trace the phone. However, CCTVs are mostly privately owned and may not be of much help if not functional.

‘Refused to file FIRs’

Cops claim that the filing of an FIR is crucial. However, most peopleDHspoke to said the cops took a written complaint and never filed an FIR, and the phones were never traced.

“My phone was pickpocketed on a bus. I went to the police station, but no FIR was filed. I was promised that the phone may be found without filing an FIR, I just lodged a written complaint on a piece of paper. Finding a phone is certainly not the police’s top priority; they have bigger problems to deal with,” said Viraj Lamba, a Bengaluru-based IT professional.

Nikunj Sabharwal, a Bengaluru-based marketing professional, toldDH he could register a complaint on the Karnataka State Police’s e-lost Reports website. “I never got a follow-up call from the police, and my phone was never found,” he added.

A Bengaluru-based lawyer said, preferring anonymity, “One reason for the refusal to register an FIR is, it increases the number of cases in the crimes records. It also means more paperwork,” he added.

“If the cops refuse to register an FIR, one may approach a Superintendent of Police-level-officer with the grievance. If the SP doesn’t take any action, one can approach the judicial magistrate under section 156(3) of the CrPC to order a probe. But the process is lengthy; hence, people generally listen to what junior cops tell them,”he toldDH.

Most phone thieves are not interested in the data stored in the phone; they just want to sell it. In most cases, they immediately reset the device and delete all data.Data can get leaked from the phone, but the police rarely receive complaints of sensitive data being leaked online.

(Published 10 November 2023, 23:47 IST)

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