Cape Town. 080912. Blackberry Cellphone. Picture Leon Lestrade

Cape Town - Thousands of smartphones stolen in SA are ending up in Nigeria and other African destinations – where they become instantly legal and untraceable.

A Weekend Argus investigation has revealed that, while blacklisting stolen handsets makes them unusable inside SA, the same is not true once they go across the border.

Researchers say loopholes in legislation and the absence of law-enforcement protocols among African nations mean relatively affluent SA is feeding the appetite of other African nations for the cyber-bling accessories.

Nigeria has been identified as a hotspot for the sale of stolen smartphones. Blackberries can sell for anything between $25 (about R200) and $65 on Lagos markets.

And it’s not just the smartphone itself that is valuable – they can

also be “mined” for personal information stored in the memory – like passwords or credit card and internet banking details – and these can then used to commit cybercrimes against the former owner.

Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Charles Goredema says the traffic in stolen cellphones is so developed that syndicates frequently trade the information stored on the smartphone separately from the handset itself.

“Banking and personal details such as ID numbers are the most coveted,” said Goredema.

“But simpler forms of data such as a contact list, sent e-mails, text messages, browser history or memos could be used by cyber fraudsters and con artists. This information could fetch a higher price than the phone itself.”

One victim of such a double theft is Achmat Jacobs from Athlone. He told Weekend Argus thieves who took his Blackberry used data he had deleted from the cellphone’s memory to gain access to his bank account.

“I’d saved my ID and banking details on it to fill in some forms but deleted the information immediately thereafter. About a week after my phone was stolen in a robbery, R2 500 was transferred from my account to another account in Zambia, which then closed immediately. The thieves had somehow retrieved my deleted information from the phone’s memory and got my banking details.”

Daniel Theron, digital forensic lab manager for law firm Edward, Nathan and Sonnenberg, said with the right software and hardware cellphones could be easily cracked. And laptops were even more valuable.

“Laptops, which are also trafficked for sale and stored data, are far easier to crack than cellphones. But syndicates who specialise in data extraction would probably be well equipped to do so. Password encryptions make it harder but are not unbeatable,” Theron said.

Another victim of cellphone theft, Suleiman Dimes, had his Blackberry 8520 stolen last November. He reported the theft and had the phone blacklisted but days later found it was still active – in another country.

“A friend told me someone was using my Blackberry chat application,” Dimes said. “We chatted to him and he said he was in Nigeria. He said he bought the phone from a shop in Lagos. When we told him the phone was stolen, he said he didn’t know and was sorry but had no way to send it back to SA. I just gave up on my cellphone and got a new one.”

Investigations by Weekend Argus have revealed that a series of quirks in Nigerian law play to the benefit of the cyber syndicates. Most surprisingly, that country’s cellular regulations make no meaningful provision for International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers – the encoding of the handset that allows it to be blocked and rendered useless by the provider network – as a law enforcement tool.

Cellphones imported into Nigeria – mainly from China – are fitted with a batch IMEI number, rather than an algorithm unique to each individual unit.

This means that a particular handset cannot be blacklisted without blacklisting hundreds, if not thousands, of other users with the same IMEI.

On Friday, Weekend Argus attempted to contact the Nigerian High Commission for comment, but was told the media liaison officer was unavailable until tomorrow. When asked for the official’s name, the commission’s telephonist said it was not policy to give out any employee details.

According to Nigeria’s Punch newspaper many cellphones legally imported into Nigeria are “fakes”, counterfeits of desirable brands like Blackberry or Nokia. Sixty percent of cellphones imported into Nigeria are sourced from Chinese manufacturers.

Vodacom spokesman Richard Boorman said once a cellphone was blacklisted on a network in SA it was effectively “dead”.

“All networks in SA operate under a single database; however, should the phone move to another country where different networks are available, it can be used again.”

Goredema said the only way to address the problem was to boost regulations on second-hand cellphones sales.

“There are existing laws to regulate the sales but they differ from country to country and are too lax. However, it is unlikely countries will come together to draft stricter regulations and their enforcement.”

Weekend Argus