The smartphone has become an ironic symbol of the London riots few manufacturers will want to dwell upon.
Reportedly used to orchestrate mayhem, mobile phone stores then became a conspicuous target for looters on the hunt for valuable, portable merchandise. With at least a dozen or more mobile stores broken into, thousands of smartphones and handsets will now be in circulation on the black economy.
But what happens to handsets stolen on this scale? We contacted several networks, none of which were able to answer this basic question, beyond pointing out that handsets can easily be blocked.
Once they have examined their stock records, store owners will be able to report the hardwired IMEI numbers for each lost handset which will result in networks adding them to their Equipment Identity Register (EIR), which will stop them working with any SIM within 24 hours.
The networks will in turn add their EIR list to the Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR), a central database of IMEI numbers accessible by all major networks. That will turn off their use on any UK network within 48 hours.
At this point, the easiest route is to attempt to sell the handsets on the black market to unsuspecting members of the public unaware how easily stolen sets can be blocked.
Anyone using a stolen but unblocked handset with a registered contract SIM will also be at risk of leading police straight to their house. PAYG SIMs can’t be traced in this way, but can be blocked from the network.
It is possible to detach a phone from its IMEI number using special equipment and a fee of perhaps £30 per handset, but hardware run through this process can’t be assigned to a new IMEI that will work in the UK, which leaves the criminals with only one option — send handsets abroad.
The assumption is that this is what happens, with valuable handsets shipped to parts of the developing world where few questions get asked and smaller GSM networks can be used to put them back into service.
For this to work, of course, stolen sets will need to be passed on to recognised networks of criminals with foreign connections. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this channel is unlikely to pay very much for a handset, probably barely a twentieth of a handset’s retail value if it has been blocked.
It will be a small consolation for the millions of people who would prefer to get hold of a new smartphone by paying at the till, the looted stock of an entire shop could be worth as little as a few hundred pounds on the street to criminals.