The following article from Catalonia offers a fascinating peek into the trade in stolen hand-held devices, most of which end up being sold in the phone shops of North Africa. I had always wondered how thieves could circumvent the unique identifiers found in each phone, and it turns out there is a new layer of Chinese middlemen who know how to disassemble the devices and change their IDs. Clever fellows, those Chinamen!
Note: As usual, when the article refers to “Romanian” criminal gangs, it means gypsies or Roma, but the tenets of political correctness forbid identifying the perpetrators in such a fashion.
Many thanks to Pampasnasturtium for translating this article from the Catalonian daily La Vanguardia:
The profitable black market encourages the theft of mobile phones
Every day, in the city of Barcelona alone, more than 330 thefts of mobiles are recorded
by Mayka Navarro, Barcelona
February 4, 2019
[Photo caption (not shown): Coveted items: the high price of smartphones has turned them into a preferred booty of thieves.]
In the city of Barcelona an average of 450 thefts are recorded (by the police) daily. [Translator’s note: ‘robos al descuido’, being robbed due to not minding your property.] More than half of those thefts take place in the streets of Ciutat Vella. And in 75% of the cases, a telephone is the object sought after by the thief.
Long ago criminals realized that it was a lot more profitable to pilfer a mobile than a wallet. And even a lot easier. Tourists use their mobiles every day more as a camera, and the dependence that a high percentage of the population suffers from causes those items, with a value in many cases around a thousand euros, to be carried around in the hand with nonchalance and hardly any precautions. A coveted object always in sight to be checked at any time, or snatched in a few seconds.
After the crime, mobile phones begin a dizzying journey that can take them, in a few hours, to be sold in any phone shop of a Moroccan city. The northern African country is the main destination of an immensely high percentage of the devices stolen in Barcelona. It’s curious, because important brands like Apple have no official stores in the neighboring country, but there are dozens of shops in Casablanca or Marrakesh where they’re sold as if they were new. Many users have suffered a theft and afterwards they complain that, when activating the geo-location system of the device, they verify that it is already located on Moroccan territory.
Ciutat Vella is the main setting for this type of crime, and the tourists the victims
Phones are stolen because there’s a big black market ready to buy them, without asking where they come from. The illegal (stolen phones) reception business results in such minimal penalties that it is impossible to dedicate police resources to investigate a group of criminals who are set free the next day.
The Ciutat Vella chiefs of police acknowledge that the streets of the area are, furthermore, the place where all the phones stolen in the rest of the city are gathered. All the people in charge of reception, who take care of giving a second life to hand-held devices, live there.
At this time the profile of the mobile thief is largely a Moroccan minor or teenager who has (legally) become an adult [translator’s note: turned 18], and has decided to survive by committing crimes outside of the (publicly-funded) guardianship system. Alone or in a group, he chooses the victims and steals tirelessly. ‘They thieve with great ease because people walk carelessly with mobile in hand. Only if the situation gets complicated, and they detect that it is a high-priced model, will the robbery end up with violence, but that’s in the least number of cases,’ explains an investigations official of Ciutat Vella.
The phone remains in the thief’s hands for a short time. The borough has different ‘free-port’ flats [‘pisos francos’] also managed by Moroccans, Algerians or Pakistanis who buy any device, paying cash, turned-on, turned-off, blocked, damaged during the theft… Anything goes. They meet at a bar, and the thief can receive, depending on the model, up to 200 or 300 euros in cash.
Most of the devices are stored in ‘free-port’ flats before they travel to Morocco
The vast majority of those mobiles are stored in the flats for a few days and afterwards travel, via land or sea, by plane in suitcases or postal packs, to Morocco. Also to Algeria, but with a first stop in Marseille. That’s the itinerary detectives have been able to replicate, during recent operations carried out in which people who acted mainly as reception points for stolen phones appeared.
Other devices end up in pieces or intact in internet cafes and mobile-phone shops managed by Pakistanis in the Raval neighborhood. They are the most careful when dealing with stolen goods and the hardest to detect commercializing pieces of illegal origin, police sources explain. Internet cafes and shops that sell secondhand phones have an obligation to send a weekly listing to the Regional Administrative Unit (‘Urpa’) of the police in Barcelona, with the IMEI numbers of the smartphones for sale.
IMEI means International Mobile Equipment Identity and it’s a unique identifier that each mobile has. No other telephone in the world has the same 15-number combination in an IMEI, and when the device is connected to a network it automatically sends that identifier. It’s a kind of unique Identity Document, with which it can be identified with no mistake throughout the entire world. Knowing that number allows the device to be blocked in case of theft.
Many devices do not remain more than an hour in the hands of the thieves
But it happens that only a minimal percentage of victims of a mobile theft keep the IMEI number safely written down somewhere. Memorizing it is impossible; it shows on the telephone’s box when it’s purchased, and if the owner of the stolen device is a tourist passing through, it’s impossible for him to supplement the police report with the number once he’s home.
Nevertheless, Barcelona’s Regional Administrative Police Unit (‘Urpa’) designed its own computer application to compare the IMEI references weekly in all the police reports in Catalonia with the listings sent to them by those internet cafes and secondhand shops. They receive some 1,500 references weekly of reported stolen goods. The immense majority of them are telephones. Every now and then a stolen item pops up.
But it is hard to detect stolen pieces in the listings that the shops hand over to the police. ‘If they work with products of a dubious origin, they won’t give us the ID number, and since they also don’t have to keep a mobile for a period of time due to our control, they get rid of them quickly,’ an Urpa official explains.
This unit carries surprise inspections in these shops and not a week passes during which they don’t find devices that had been reported stolen. Another loophole in the system is the phone repair shops, where Chinese citizens are increasingly setting up new businesses. Here there’s positively no type of control at all. Phones are disassembled, and new ones can be assembled with an IMEI created through a computer program that hides the old IMEI.
The Agricultura Street stolen phones’ receptionists
The investigation unit of Barcelona’s municipal police managed to break up a criminal organization composed of members of the same Romanian family who, besides burglarizing tourists’ cars in the city’s parking lots, were selling all the stolen goods in a flat on Agricultura Street. At that reception site in the Besòs neighborhood, detectives found goods valued at €300,000. Those arrested, three of whom were sent to prison, would sell the stolen goods from that flat, where they also lived, or would distribute them to other properties in Ciutat Vella. When the agents entered the house they only found four mobile phones, which confirms, according to detectives, that stolen smartphones are the products that fly off the shelves first.