By Sheree Russouw
Having your lost or stolen cellphone blacklisted may be a waste of time - because criminals, often sitting in legitimate cellphone shops, can switch it back on at the touch of a button.
Hi-tech criminals in South Africa are using sophisticated computer technology to unlock stolen and lost blacklisted cellular phones - and are then selling them as legitimate to the public.
They are believed to be using computer software downloaded from the Internet.
This enables them to change the unique 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number in stolen and lost handsets.
In the past week alone, the Johannesburg Metro Police and the SA Police Service have arrested 17 people in Johannesburg and Hillbrow, among them the owners of several cellphone shops, for the possession and distribution of hundreds of stolen cellphones.
But South Africa's three cell networks, which rake in billions of rands in income from the country's estimated 30-million legal and illegal cellphone owners every year, refuse to discuss the matter.
Instead, they referred Pretoria News Weekend to a representative of an industry-wide blacklisting initiative introduced last year to deal the illegal cellphone industry a fatal blow.
But she demanded the paper write a "positive" story on the issue, and did not provide any further information.
On Thursday, the police's organised crime unit, together with Vodacom, recovered 134 stolen phones.
They also seized 19 CDs containing software to unblock blacklisted phones and one hard drive and a laptop from various businesses around Johannesburg.
Gauteng police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Mary Martins-Engelbrecht said those phones were linked to hijackings, armed robberies, housebreaking and thefts.
"These businesses dealing in stolen cellphones are creating a market for stolen goods.
"Criminals rob, steal and murder people for their cellphones and sell them at these shops," she said.
Both police outfits said the recent busts were "the first of their kind" and a "new phenomenon".
"It is not known at this stage where and how these suspects get the software and technology used to unblock blacklisted phones," said Martins-Engelbrecht.
"We are working closely with the relevant industry representatives to address the problem.
"Several intelligence-driven initiatives are under way to clamp down on this practice.
"Last April, the national police, cellphone operators Cell C, MTN and Vodacom and Business Against Crime (BAC) agreed to blacklist all cellphones reported stolen and lost."
Blacklisting renders the instrument as well as the SIM card immediately useless.
But when contacted about this crime trend, Cell C, MTN and Vodacom, as well as the SA Cellular Telecommunications Association, refused to comment.
They referred queries instead to the BAC's blacklisting initiative project manager, advocate Simi Pillay-Van Graan, and the police's media liaison offices.
Vodacom spokesperson Mari-Louise Esterhuizen said the issue of bypassing IMEI numbers "was a criminal offence and as such does not lie within the domain of the operators".
Pillay-Van Graan of the BAC said it was a "highly sensitive issue" and that writing about the trend would encourage criminals if they knew that this technology was available.
She called for a "positive story" indicating that "work was being done" to clamp down on the practice. Yet she did not indicate what that was at the time of going to press, despite promising to do so.
But Karl Muller, a member of the managing committee of the Electromagnetic Action Group SA, said cellphone theft was a "huge crime epidemic that should never have existed" because stealing a cellphone should be a very easy crime to track and stop.
"We are very perturbed by the number of children getting mugged at schools and malls for their cellphones," he said.
"It should be possible for an absolute blacklisting of a stolen phone and all these stolen phones can in theory be tracked.
"They (criminals) have ways to fiddle the IMEI number and 'clone' phones, but they (operators) can still track them. They are not doing it."