To catch a mobile thief

The house Rabindra Maharjan lives in at Imadol is 20 years old. In all these years, not a single item had been stolen from his place. It changed on the night of November 2. As Maharjan slept, a thief, or a couple of them, broke into an unoccupied room on the third floor. Until that night the room had been used by his son, who had left for his boarding school that very day. The thief took two laptops, one Playstation console and a Nokia mobile phone. In the morning, Maharjan realised that his neighbour’s Samsung Note 2 and around Rs 7,000 in cash were also stolen.

Immediately, the two lodged a joint complaint at the police station at Imadol, from where the report was forwarded to the crime division at Humandhoka Metropolitan Police. Maharjan was desperate to get hold of one of the laptops, in which he had just transferred 15 years worth of research and data on tourism—the sector he works in. The only hope of ever recovering the lost belongings was through the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers on the phone sets. These numbers are unique to a handset and although not laid down in law, it is illegal to tamper with them.

But, as with people who lose their phones come to realise, Rabindra soon found out that lodging a complaint was not enough. The process of tracking down the lost or stolen phones is frustrating, prone to errors and at the mercy of police officers who are willing to keep at it.

After receiving formal complaints, police officers email the IMEI numbers to staff at Ncell and Nepal telecom. The workers at the two telecom companies then look up the numbers in their system to see whether the corresponding phones are in use. If the stolen phone is in use, they email the mobile number of the new user; if not, they reply with “Not found”. For the phones not yet in use, the police will have to check in again after a few days—restarting the whole process.

Because the crime division does not have an automated electronic system built in coordination with the telecom companies, the backlog keeps on growing and police officers easily get frustrated with the time-consuming procedure. “Sometimes we mistakenly email wrong IMEI numbers and overlook other numbers because we see around 10 new complaints every day,” says Giri Raj Bhandari, an undercover police officer at Hanumandhoka.

The IMEI number once entered into a system should not have to be entered again. If the lost or stolen phone gets used again, the system will alert the police officers. If not, the IMEI number will remain in the system’s memory for a few years or until the phone is used again.

The crime division tried to make the process smoother by deploying a couple of police officers at the site of the telecom companies, but fears of violating customers’ privacy deterred Nepal Telecom and Ncell. The fear, however, is not ill-founded. People are known to have misused the power to access call details and text message reports.

Still, talks to explore other ways of making the investigation hassle-free are underway, says Pushker Karki, Senior Superintendent of Police at Hanumandhoka. “There has to be a meeting point between crime investigation and customers’ privacy. A stolen phone could turn into a serious security threat later on,” says Karki.

The two telecom companies realise that the current procedure of recovering lost or stolen phones is cumbersome, but they are not willing to share their database with the police. Instead, the Managing Director of Nepal Telecom, Buddhi Acharya, says that the company is currently coding a software that stores the IMEI numbers of lost and stolen phones not yet tracked down to a new user.

The problem with there being advanced technology at just one telecom giant, however, is that if the new user uses the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card of another service provider, the programme will not know that and will keep checking for the IMEI number forever, needlessly cluttering up the system. “The three-way effort is the only alternative,” says Milan Mani Sharma, Communication Expert at Ncell, but he does not yet know what form that cooperation should take.

As the three-way effort to solve cases of mobile phones theft and loss is currently in limbo, pursuing the phones requires relentless dedication on the part of police officers.

This has resulted in victims of theft perceiving that if the police so desire, the phones could be easily retrieved. And to make the police want to investigate the “petty” theft, many believe that money needs to change hands or they need to have someone powerful in the police force, Ncell or Nepal Telecom as their friends.

Both the telecom companies and the police deny this allegation, saying that the thieves have instead become smarter with experience. Most often, the police say, thieves are professional criminals, which means they know that the phones can be tracked to their new users. They, therefore, will not use the phones themselves, but will sell them immediately. Even then, the phones can be traced and the smart thieves these days exchange handsets with migrants leaving abroad for work, or otherwise sell the phones thus received to new users here. Once the phones leave the country, it’s futile to look for them.

Despite the clumsy process of investigation, Maharjan, after visiting Hanumandhoka relentlessly, received good news last Friday. His neighbour’s Samsung phone was finally tracked down to an owner of a dance restaurant at Balkumari, raising his hopes. The dance restaurant proprietor was summoned to the police station immediately and the phone returned to its rightful owner. After interrogation, the restaurant manager revealed that the phone had been given to him as payment by a regular customer. He promised, in paper, to bring that person to the police within 10 days. Unfortunately, the chase is not over. The restaurant owner first deliberately wrote down the name of the restaurant wrong, and has since stopped receiving calls on his usual mobile number.

Published: 13-12-2014, The Kathmandu Post