How To End The Problem of Cell Phone Theft

This articles assumes the general population of NZ would answer yes to the following, proving this idea to be sound:

Would you appreciate a law that creates an ability for the victim of cellphone theft to setup a process where the receiver of the stolen mobile phone or device is sent a series of automated messages that describe the device as stolen, provides an amnesty from prosecution on return to the police station, and nominal cash reward for doing so?

Rather than blacklist a lost phone at the GSM network level by calling Vodafone / Telecom / 2 Degrees and asking for an IMEI-block placed on the phone -as I did recently with a lost Android phone to prevent the new users from enjoying it - by keeping the phone "alive" and working, it will remain in use, charged, trackable, and messagable. The device is addressable because of it's IMEI number.

So I hereby propose that cellphone theft could theoretically be eliminated purely by the implementation of a few laws, and probably only cost a couple of million to setup:

1. Setup a government level database of IMEI* numbers (unique phone serials) that users can optionally register their device against their name.

2. When the users phone is reported stolen to police, this also gets recorded in the same database.

3. A law is passed that forces telecoms companies to alter the behaviour of this phone to make it useless to the theif from that point on.

New Phone Behaviour When Stolen

When the stolen phone is wiped, has a new SIM inserted, and activated, the telecoms network will be forced by law to send a series of txt messages informing the user that the phone has been reported stolen and should be returned to the nearest NZ police station, or  embassy. Once returned to the true owner, the database is updated and the messages stop. At the same time, authorities can be alerted to geo-locate the device and arrest the person if possible if they continue to use the phone.

The messages would be sent daily at a randomised hour of the day and would read something like this:

This phone has been registered as stolen on the police mobile device anti-theft database. Please return it to the nearest NZ Police station to receive automatic immunity and avoid prosecution for receiving stolen property. Your location is currently being tracked.


Two forms of registation should be available, mainly because the first "easy" kind could be completely automated and not really tie up any additional police time. The second and harder kind would create extra work for cops in police stations sighting IDs and working with the system, providing forgotten passwords etc.

  • Easy registration via auto-sensing of IMEI from phone network and SMS TXT based reply prompts to "lock in" your record in the national anti-theft database (registering). The user now has a login to a profile that they can use to change the status of the phone: normal, change owner, lost, stolen, delete registration etc.
  • Harder registration via using photo ID at a police station when recording your IMEI number. This method is needed also for post-theft input of IMEI number assuming you kept a copy of this (you can get yours by entering *#06# send), and also for claiming back a locked in database entry say if you buy and sell the phone, but the old owner will not unregister themselves. This method also enables users who had no idea all of this was possible to force the police to force the telecoms company to give out your old IMEI number, so that it can be post-registered by a sworn officer or justice of the peace.
  • Auto txt sent to un-registered phones every 6 months by network to remind / advise new roaming phones of the anti-theft law, and the benefits of registering.
  • Auto txt sent to registered phone when new SIM inserted to advise the phone is registered on anti-theft database.

Whether or not the true owner of the phone is in possession of the phone at the time of registration is not entirely important, the system is relatively secure to abuse. Having physical access to the phone will make registration faster. Most people would likely opt for post-theft registration, which could be offered by police when customers record stolen property.

Even a clever theft who thinks to use the free and easy txt-based registration system just after stealing the phone can be defeated later when the real owner turns up at a police station with ID.. If however, a malicious user was able to physically access the device then he/she could register the phone to themselves. This is not really a problem though, as anyone who has lost access to their phone is already too late for this to help them, unless they know their IMEI to start with.

Activating the Anti-Theft System

Normally you would think a trip to the police station would be required. However, this is off putting for some people, as they know that it could be time consuming to attempt to report a phone stolen. I propose that this system could be architected such that it would be possible for the true owner of the phone to trigger the theft warning system remotely via a computer or another phone, with a special password. If they loose their password, then they would need to rock up to a police station with photo ID, and claim back their record.

Weak points:

  • Requires a fair amount of complex back end databases, cellular network interconnections, and police staff time to implement.
  • Abuse potential: discover somebodys IMEI, register it, then disactivate the  phone. However, this could be mitigated by the fact that the true owner could present at a police station with ID to unlock the phone again.
  • How to deal with civil disputes, say a second hand trade of a phone where the previous owner was not fully paid, nor gave back the account.

File under:

phone anti theft

how to trace a stolen phone

how to find a stolen phone

how to find stolen phone

how to unblock a phone reported lost

theft mobile

cell phone lost

stolen phone

cell phones

lost cell phone

Posted by tomachi on May 20th, 2011 filed in Politics