The smartphone has become the most popular and probably the most important consumer electronic device today. The year 2016 saw 2.1 billion smartphone users globally and by 2020, the number is expected to grow to 2.87 billion according to a report by Statista.
With the rise in number of users, there has also been a rise in the number of mobile phone thefts. According to a survey report from 2013, about 3.1 million smartphones were stolen in the US alone. And that is not the only thing. During the same period, around 1.4 million smartphones were lost.
Today, we keep confidential data on our smartphones. We have our emails, our bank accounts, crucial contact details, photos and even important documents. Losing a smartphone can be a horrifying experience, but there are ways to locate them.
While there are OS-based features to trace a smartphone, one of the oldest and most efficient method of recovering a lost or stolen handset is by tracing it using its IMEI.
IMEI is short for International Mobile Equipment Identity. Every mobile handset has a unique 15-digit serial number which acts like its identity. This can be used to check details of a mobile phone like model number, country of origin and so on. One can find this number printed inside the battery panel, on the SIM tray, around the handset as well as the mobile phone packaging. One can also check by entering *#06# on the dialpad. Certain phones will have two IMEI numbers in case they offer two SIM card slots.
The IMEI number can also be used by mobile networks to identify valid devices and even remotely block a stolen phone from accessing that network. Suppose a mobile phone is stolen, the network operator can blacklist the phone using its IMEI number upon instructions. This makes the handset useless as it stops working on that network and possibly on other networks as well.
However there have been methods to alter the IMEI of a mobile phone. Recently there was a report that said that three men running a business of selling stolen smartphones were caught by the Delhi Police. They would snatch and steal smartphones around their area, alter the IMEI and then sell them off to potential customers.
DCP Prasad said, “They would unlock the pattern lock and access all the data in a phone. They would then erase this data, including cache and cookies, using a software program. The phone would then be connected to a device bought from a local market, which changed its IMEI number electronically.”
According to the report, they used software that cost just Rs 42,000 which is available in local markets, including Gaffar market, Lajpat Nagar, Palika Bazaar, and Nehru Place.
This is a classic example of how it as become really easy to steal mobile phones. Cracking the IMEI is usually done by professionals, but getting access to hardware and software for this purpose has become relatively easy. A large number of local mobile retail and repair shops offer such a service.
I went to a couple of repair shops in the Delhi NCR region where I was told that the IMEI can be easily replaced with a virtual one. The smartphone runs without any issues and becomes untraceable. I was given charges ranging from Rs 400 going up to Rs 2,000 when I mentioned I have an iPhone 7. Of course a number of shop owners refused saying that they don’t offer the service.
For the ones who do, it’s a way of business. What they don’t realise is that once a smartphone becomes difficult to trace, it can potentially be used by criminals and the like.
In fact, I went online and checked if I myself can find a software and do this operation. I went through multiple softwares and guides and found that by simply getting root access on an Android smartphone, and a bunch of software and apps, one can easily alter the IMEI. There were also some methods where root access was not required.
Modification of IMEI is a serious offence and should be dealt with seriously. One of the solutions to this problem can be imposing a law on owning such software and hardware. Mobile manufacturers could also provide solutions through hardware-based encryption or software methods so that the IMEI cannot be altered.