Once it was true that your mobile phone’s IMEI number could help police trace it in case it was stolen. The unique number is no longer a comfort. Crooks now have devices that can change the IMEI numbers, and to the concern of police, such tools are easily available in the grey market.

IMEI, or International Mobile Equipment Identity, is a unique 15-digit number associated with every phone and believed, till now, to be tamper-proof. An Old Delhi engineer, who preferred not to be named for obvious reasons, told TOI that the myth about IMEI’s invulnerability can be dispelled in just 10 minutes. He had with him a device called a flasher. It resembled a regular Wi-Fi router. He opened the files contained on the disc on a computer and then used the flasher to connect the phone to the computer. After this was achieved, all that needed to be done, he explained, was to change the digits.

Once the IMEI is replaced with another number, the phone’s origin can never be traced. This means there could be two or more devices with the same IMEI in circulation, depending on the number inputted. And all that the unscrupulous operators charge for this work is Rs 200-500 per handset. The flasher itself costs Rs 2,000-5,000.

Apparently, it is easier to junk the IMEI in phones that run on the cheaper MTK processor. Handsets fitted with Qualcomm Snapdragon are harder to crack, though they are not totally tamper-resistant. Changing the IMEI number of Apple handsets is, however, not possible because the flashers do not work on iPhones. Yet, as police pointed out, this is not a deterrent since Apple phones are almost always dismantled and their parts sold separately.

The cops recently busted several modules involved in changing the IMEIs of high-end phones in the capital. Among the biggest was in south-east district in February this year, when eight men were arrested and 735 phones worth Rs 1.3 crore — with the IMEIs of most of them changed — were recovered.

Romil Baaniya, DCP (southeast), said that only around 100 phones were tracked back to their owners. Most of those that could be paired with their owners were devices costing Rs 7,000-20,000, the rest being priced either below this range or over, an indication that the IMEI of cheaper phones can be easily managed and costlier phones, mostly iPhones, are broken down into saleable parts.

Changing the unique identity number is not a single individual’s task, indicated Mandeep Randhawa, DCP (Central). He revealed that phone snatchers often carry out their shady operations in groups of four or five. One steals the devices, while the others are receivers and engineers, who ultimately change the IMEI number and sell the tampered phones in the grey market.

In a case solved by Randhawa’s district team, 50 phones were recovered. The cops found that the IMEI number of all had been changed. The men arrested for the crime ran mobile repairing shops and illegally bought devices to manipulate what obviously is no longer a unique number impervious to tinkering. Naturally, the cops could not trace the handsets to their owners.

In another case, the Crime Branch busted a gang of four that was running an illegal iPhone workshop near Karol Bagh. During the raid, police took in a haul of 409 iPhones, 18 iPads and several dismantled devices, all likely to be worth nearly Rs 1 crore.

Narrating the modus operandi, Bhisham Singh, DCP (Crime), said that the men would allegedly bring in iPhones stolen in China from their contacts in that country. In India, they would erase the IMEI using laser technology and then sell them.

In the rare case that the IMEI of a phone is intact, police can trace a stolen device to its owner. Madhur Verma, DCP (Crime), explained that the cops maintain a database of stolen mobile phones. They can feed the IMEI number of phones that have been retrieved into the database and scan the FIRs registered across Delhi police stations for a match.

Source: ET Telecom



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