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Cellphones Crime United Kingdom

Inside the Stolen Smartphone Black Market In London 109

Posted by samzenpus
from the pre-owned-like dept.
First time accepted submitter WebAgeCaveman (3615807) writes in with news about just how big the stolen smartphone black market is. "A black market of shops and traders willing to deal in stolen smartphones has been exposed by a BBC London undercover investigation. Intelligence was received that some shops across a swathe of east London were happy to buy phones from thieves. Two traders were filmed buying Samsung S3 and iPhone 4 devices from a researcher posing as a thief - despite him making it clear they were stolen. The shops involved have declined to comment."
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Inside the Stolen Smartphone Black Market In London

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  • by kentrel (526003) on Monday April 14, 2014 @02:12PM (#46749523) Journal
    Under a 2002 law it was made illegal to change the IMEI unless you're the manufacturer. However, under a 2006 amendment to the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 it was made illegal to even OFFER to do this. You don't have to actually change the IMEI to commit the offense, you just have to offer or say you will. Punishment is up to 5 years in prison. The smartphone blackmarket could be wiped out just by enforcing this law.
    • by janoc (699997) on Monday April 14, 2014 @02:40PM (#46749741)

      That sounds as if the criminals actually cared about it being illegal. One of the guys has mugged someone to get the phone in the first place and the other one is dealing in them - both crimes with likely a lot stiffer sentence than a stupid IMEI change. C'mon ....

      Don't be ridiculous - until there stops being demand for extremely cheap phones (so that one can show off in front of the peers) and the manufacturers and network operators actually start doing something about it (Why is IMEI changeable in the first place?), trade in stolen phones will continue. Unfortunately, it would have to stop being profitable for them. All those IMEI blocks and such by the operators are ineffective if the phone can have the IMEI changed and not even all of them are implementing those blocks.

      The other issue is that when even BBC can easily find and film (!) fences dealing in stolen goods, then what is the police doing? Ah, right, that is UK, so they are likely busy detaining journalists as terrorists, there is no time to fight petty theft and muggers.

      • by gstoddart (321705)

        both crimes with likely a lot stiffer sentence than a stupid IMEI change

        Oh, I don't know ... some times it seems increasingly like the penalty for digital crimes outweighs the penalty for crimes done in person.

        Which is why you can get more jail time for "hacking" a system put together by chimps than you could for manslaughter.

      • by Threni (635302)

        > Ah, right, that is UK, so they are likely busy detaining journalists as terrorists, there
        > is no time to fight petty theft and muggers.

        Given enough of an outcry they'll turn their attention to this particular crime, which will result in a large reduction in this particular crime, and the police can announce the last year vs this year figures (whilst not showing the increase in some other crime which isn't being targeted) before moving their focus elsewhere (with the corresponding increase in this pa

      • Because Asurion. Handset insurance almost invariably involves refurbished units. If the baseband of one phone is broken, but the mainboard of another is okay, which IMEI do you use? The answer is to scrap them both and generate a new one on the refurbished unit. Even for the phones that don't support this, it is still technically a "different phone" that has its cracked screen replaced, because if that phone then needs an insurance replacement, retaining the IMEI will garner a "but this phone has already be

    • by Kenja (541830)
      But that would mean the people stealing phones where doing things that were illegal, and that would be BREAKING THE LAW!
    • OR it should just be impossible to do in the first place. There is absolutely no viable use case for the IMIE code to be on writeable memory. I can see why OEM's are reluctant to burn the ID to a ROM chip. On the massive scale of phone production it's going to push their costs up and slow the production chain but for crying out loud manufactures shouldn't even need to be told to do this.

      /still feeling bitter from being robbed at knife point of my phone last year.
      • by Sneftel (15416) on Monday April 14, 2014 @02:55PM (#46749875)

        Storing the IMEI in PROM instead of EEPROM would have no effect on production costs. Fuse bits are, if anything, cheaper than their rewritable equivalent (though IMEIs are what, 64 bits, so honestly it wouldn't make a cent of difference).

        • You would have to change the code in the PROM for every system to make it unique.
          Then you're also assuming that no one will be able to figure out how to solder out the prom for another device.
          Then you're also figuring out that no one will produce a patch to return back a different imei even if i was hardcoded.

          And manufacturing the exact same thing over and over is way more cost effective than anything that has a one off process.

          • by Sneftel (15416)

            The fuse bits would be on the radio chip, the IC that actually does the cellular stuff, so patching and soldering would be useless. Fuse bits are set in a manner similar to flash memory -- via commands to the chip. The only significant difference is that once set, they can't be changed.

            Microcontrollers already use fuse bits. Your average less-than-a-dollar PIC microcontroller includes several fuse bits to do things like make it impossible to reprogram. It's well-known technology, and just as cost-effective

            • Your average less-than-a-dollar PIC microcontroller includes several fuse bits to do things like make it impossible to reprogram.

              This is not true. All PIC programmable elements are reprogrammable. Including the protected portions. It is simply that those cells cannot be rewritten without bulk-erasing the block they are in.

              There are MCUs that have Write-Once-Only FLASH, but PICs are not one of them.

      • by Threni (635302)

        > for crying out loud manufactures shouldn't even need to be told to do this.

        They shouldn't need to be told to put the price up so that they'll end up selling fewer phones (hint: if your phone is stolen you need to buy a new phone) ? I think there's a chance they already know this...

      • So take stolen iPhone and broken iPhone, swap ROM chips and you have a working one again.

        Phones with blocked IMEI's still have value as parts. Screens are commonly broken and people will pay $50 to get a new one for their $500 phone. You could make them impossible to disassemble without destroying everything of value, but then people will complain they can't fix their own stuff.

        • by Sneftel (15416)

          That's a significant problem, I agree. You could program the same IMEI onto all the mainboard chips and make them inoperable unless the IMEIs all match, but the screen and touchscreen are still expensive and useful to salvage. It's not a panacea. But it would precipitously drop the street price of a stolen iPhone, and that would make theft less lucrative. Every bit counts.

          • Given the amount of handshaking which goes on, you can put the IMEI in those too.

            Most modern cars have something like this in all their management systems. if breaking one up for parts, the components have to be electronically divorced from each other (while still connected to each other) or they'll refuse to work in another system (there's a marriage procedure too)

            That setup was deliberately introduced to combat stolen parts rings and chop shops, but has only been partially effective (savvy operators steal

        • "Phones with blocked IMEI's still have value as parts"

          In some cases they're worth more as parts than as phones.

          It's a pity the Beeb didn't think to followthrough on the stories to find out what the fences were doing next. It'd a be a good "Kenyon" style undercover story.

           

    • by Sneftel (15416) on Monday April 14, 2014 @02:49PM (#46749823)

      It would be trivial for manufacturers to make the IMEI absolutely unchangeable using fuse bits. The fact that they have not suggests that they see widespread phone theft as an overall benefit for them, which makes sense -- it drives sales of new phones among those able to afford them.

      Enforcement of those laws would help, but enforcement of such things is always expensive and imperfect. Simpler and more effective to mandate that manufacturers make IMEIs absolutely unchangeable.

      • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

        Actually it's demand from the networks that keeps the IMEI writeable. They want to buy phones in bulk from the manufacturer, program their own IMEIs and load up crapware, and sell them to customers. When the customer decides to upgrade they will offer some pittance for the phone, then sell it on to another network in another country who change the IMEI and sell it to their customers.

    • by Luthair (847766)
      Funnily enough stealing phones is illegal also but that doesn't appear to be stopping the problem.
    • by mjwx (966435)

      Under a 2002 law it was made illegal to change the IMEI unless you're the manufacturer. However, under a 2006 amendment to the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 it was made illegal to even OFFER to do this. You don't have to actually change the IMEI to commit the offense, you just have to offer or say you will. Punishment is up to 5 years in prison. The smartphone blackmarket could be wiped out just by enforcing this law.

      Somewhere in South London:

      Crim 1 orrigh' me ol China, we've half-inched this mugs dog an' bone.
      Crim 2 Now we just have to change the IMEI.
      Crim 1 But that's illegal my sahn.
      Crim 2 You're right guv, better give up then.

    • Under a 2002 law it was made illegal to change the IMEI unless you're the manufacturer.

      It's a Chuck Schumer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C... [wikipedia.org] bill that he introduces every couple of years, it gets thrown to the Judiciary committee, and then it dies in committee. Like clockwork. Here's the text of the current bill, which is presently dying in the Judiciary committee right now: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/... [loc.gov]:

      The people who care about this are the people who traffic in stolen phones, and the people who want to buy a handset and use the same SIM in a different GSM phone, or who want to chang

  • Ok, so, apocryphal stories, check. Stats with no useful contextual data, check. (The number of deaths by falling pianos is up 100%!!)

    A cell phone kill switch is still a phenomenally bad idea. Let's not let the media sell us on it with heart rending stories about some random person being robbed for their smartphone.

    • by bobbied (2522392)

      A cell phone kill switch is still a phenomenally bad idea.

      Depends on what you mean by a "kill switch". I don't think a world wide "bad ESN/IMEI" registry would be a bad thing myself. But that's not a "hit the button, wipe your phone into uselessness" kill switch.

    • I think there is already a kill switch... don't pay your bill or call up your cell provider and ask them to cancel it they can already stop service.

      This conversation is about a IMEI that can't be changed and a list stolen IMEIs so nobody can use a stolen phone. Nobody is asking for a tiny explosive on the mainboard to toast the phone when it's stolen although I think that would be cool and dangerous.

    • by radish (98371)

      Speaking as someone who's been robbed for his cellphone twice - bring it on!

      • by roc97007 (608802)

        Wow, you might consider moving.

        • Wow, you might consider moving.

          In some parts of the world cellphones are known as "mobile" phones or "portable" phones. Maybe he wasn't at home when they were stolen?

          • by roc97007 (608802)

            Wow, you might consider moving.

            In some parts of the world cellphones are known as "mobile" phones or "portable" phones. Maybe he wasn't at home when they were stolen?

            I assumed that. I know "robbed" technically implies a home invasion, but I was assuming he meant "mugged". (Which I agree may not be a valid assumption.) My comment meant: If the crime rate in the area where you live is so high that being robbed for something as trivial as a cell phone (it used to be tennis shoes...) is common, you might consider relocating to some place where that's less likely to happen. Parenthetically, I think this (not robbed for cell phones but crime rates in general) might have

            • My comment meant: If the crime rate in the area where you live is so high that being robbed for something as trivial as a cell phone

              Why do you persist in thinking he was robbed where he lived?

              Parenthetically, I think this might have been the original reason people who could afford it moved out of the city into the suburbs.

              How many people who live in the suburbs work in the suburbs?

  • LOL ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gstoddart (321705) on Monday April 14, 2014 @02:21PM (#46749591) Homepage

    "Mos Eisley Spaceport.. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious."

    I don't think much has changed since Dickens to be honest.

    The specifics change, but human nature doesn't.

    • ...Mos Eisley Spaceport...

      ISTR that was a long time ago in a galaxy far away.

      These are not the IMEAs you are looking for.
      --
      Shoes for the dead, ipads for the blind, ipods for the deaf.

  • No great revelation (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RogueyWon (735973) on Monday April 14, 2014 @02:32PM (#46749669) Journal
    Don't get me wrong, it's a good and valuable piece of journalism. But I doubt the findings will be a surprise to anybody who's lived in the more central areas of London (or any other major UK city), outside of a few sheltered enclaves.

    I lived for a few years living around the New Cross/Bermondsey area (south of the river, but similar in demographic to the areas in TFA) and there were always a few electronics shops whose existence seemed fundamentally implausible if their business was founded on anything other than handling stolen goods. I avoided them like the plague, but they were generally pretty resilient businesses - and if one closed down, another would spring up a few streets away. I'm not saying that any business which looks a bit grungy is dishonest. I've made some good purchases at backstreet computer stores which get good prices on the back of low overheads and connections with legitimate suppliers (though such places are rare these days since the online boom). But there's a certain type of business which is offering games consoles or other commodity goods at the kind of prices that just make you go "hmm".

    Hell, even going back well before that, I can remember independent video games stores "Ooop North" (from the tail end of the period before the big chains drove most of them to the wall, around the early PS1/N64 era) who were well known among my teenaged peers for staying in business on the basis of a combination of modchipping and fencing stolen goods. In fact, I remember one very close to my school being raided by police and shut down (presumably after crossing some nebulous line into their visible spectrum). Provided a fascinating distraction during the middle of an otherwise dull day at school.

    As the whole modchipping thing implies, these have never been businesses run by people without a degree of tech-savvy. It's no surprise that they've moved onto circumventing mobile phone protections. And I bet you'd find similar businesses in, at the very least, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow.

    There have even been suggestions - though I offer no comment as to their veracity - that a well-known red-logoed chain of second hand electronics stores with a presence in almost every town in the UK might sometimes be less than choosy about checking the provenance of the goods it accepts [ilfordrecorder.co.uk].
    • by Xest (935314)

      Yep, no need to beat about the bush, there has been numerous occasions where CEX has been found peddling stolen goods.

      When big well known nationwide brands are doing it and getting away with it what have the small guys got to worry about? CEX is the place of choice for many criminals trying to offload stolen Blurays, laptops, DVDs, video games, and mobile phones.

  • Why it's no secret where these traders and shops operate. The place where anything and everything you want is sold! I'm speaking of course about Portobello Road [youtube.com]!
  • by Alain Williams (2972) <addw@phcomp.co.uk> on Monday April 14, 2014 @03:17PM (#46750089) Homepage

    If the BBC can do this ... why aren't the police doing so ? They would not need to do it very often, just enough to put the fear of god in those who act as a fence.

    • by OhPlz (168413)

      Does anyone in a modern country actually fear the police anymore? The prisons can barely hold violent offenders, even if they busted these theft rings, they're probably not going to prison for long, if at all. The best the police could probably do is thank them for not assaulting anyone as they're stealing from them.

      • You seem to be under the impression that because prisons are overcrowded we have stopped putting people in them. In reality we just pack a few more in; the violence, drug abuse, sexual assault, and gang membership this inevitably makes even worse is simply ignored.

        • by OhPlz (168413)

          We haven't stopped putting people in, but the non-violent criminals are generally the first to win the favor of "catch and release" policies that mean to address overcrowding. It's so out of control even in the small state I live in that nearly all prisoners had their sentences reduced and even violent offenders were able to leave prison months earlier than they were sentenced for. Knowing that, is the threat of prison much of a deterrent anymore? Even across the pond, that lunatic that shot up the islan

    • by NoKaOi (1415755)

      If the BBC can do this ... why aren't the police doing so ?

      Because they don't care. In some cases it's apathy and in some it's incompetence. I had my wallet and iPhone stolen, and the thief actually used the phone and tried to use the credit card. I did all of the leg work so that all the police had to do was submit a law enforcement request (not even a court order) and would have got the name of the thief, but the detectives danced around outright saying it wasn't worth 5 minutes of their time. Of course, if they caught the thief it means hours of their time t

  • not just the uk (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 14, 2014 @03:31PM (#46750197)

    My sister's friend recently had her phone stolen in LA. She tracked her phone to a phone shop in the worst part of town. When she confronted the store owner about it he had the nerve to tell her "we don't rat out our suppliers."

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Because only a gentle fate could have awaited the store owner "in the worst part of town" if he had ratted out a criminal supplier, right? The nerve of him to care about his legs more than your sister's trinket!

      Sometimes I think middle class hipsters are so fucking clueless about the way the majority of the world works that they deserve everything they get.

    • I call BS. Pro phone thieves and their buyers know to pull the battery as soon as they steal a phone. Without power, no tracking.

      This is trivial on Android/Windows Phone/BB (not that anyone wants to steal the latter two) and even on iPhones, it's not very hard to pull the cover off and remove the battery (was two screws on an iPhone 4, plus a screw for the battery cable, well under 30 seconds to do it), or pop it into a faraday bag for later handling.

      Nobody stealing phones with half a brain would ever all

  • Well, did BBC investigate the alternative? Will these cash-dispensing kiosks do a better job? http://flipsy.com/blog/13/11/e... [flipsy.com] Maybe, if you have to have your photograph taken to get the cash?

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