ALKHOBAR, 18 March 2003 — I received the following e-mail last month from a regular reader, Syed Taiyab Omar:
“I would like to draw your attention to the rise in the theft of mobile telephones in Saudi Arabia. Young boys dare to snatch mobiles in the daylight hours and run away. Car windows are ruthlessly smashed to steal the mobiles off the seats inside.
“The reason for the increase in theft of cell phones is because they are easily sold on the gray market for a few hundred riyals. In Jeddah at night on Palestine Street, there is always a crowd of shabby-looking people selling used mobile phones. No one stops them.
“This is a pity, because mobile phones could easily be traced to their owners as each phone has a unique serial number. I have been told that the telephone authorities in some Western countries can block the use on their networks of a stolen mobile phone. This blacklisting discourages thieves from stealing these devices. I went to Saudi Telecom to ask about this service, but they told me that they could only block the chip from use if it was stolen. Please provide more information on this topic for the benefit of all.”
Unfortunately, everything Omar wrote in his e-mail is correct. Mobile telephone theft is on the rise in the Kingdom and it is a problem that is getting out of control. Just a brief investigation of this issue found numerous people who have had their mobiles stolen in the past few months. It seems that the introduction of the prepaid mobile service increased demand for used handsets and gave thieves the impetus to snatch every phone that’s not nailed down.
Believe me, suddenly cell phones all over the Kingdom have grown legs.
Leave your phone unattended on your desk for a moment and it will walk off. Casually stuff your phone in your pocket and it will crawl out. One man told me of someone who went to a funeral and came back missing both his wallet and his phone. People at all levels of society are being victimized.
“I picked up two teenage Saudi boys,” said Shafiq, a Pakistani taxi driver in Alkhobar. “One sat beside me in the front and the other sat in the back seat. When we reached their destination, the one in the back got out, stood beside the taxi and took out his wallet to pay me.
Suddenly he pointed to the front tire and said something I didn’t hear.
I thought the tire was flat and I got out to have a look. I didn’t see anything wrong, so I took the riyals he offered and got back in my taxi.
The boy in the front seat had already left and I drove off. About five minutes later I noticed that my mobile phone, which had been plugged into the car charger, was missing. I knew the boy sitting in the front seat had stolen it. I was very upset but all I could do was drive to the STC office quickly and cancel the phone chip. I couldn’t get a new phone till evening so my regular customers couldn’t reach me. I lost business in addition to paying the costs for a new phone and a new chip.”
Shafiq’s story was awful, but when I telephoned Omar in Jeddah to confirm portions of the e-mail he’d sent me, he told me an even worse tale, which should be a lesson to all.
“One of my friends was at an Internet café, with his cell phone on the table beside him,” said Omar. “A young man came up to him and explained that his phone was out of battery and asked if he could make a call. My friend was preoccupied and readily agreed, giving the man the phone.
Then the man asked if he could change SIM cards, as the number he needed was on his card. My friend agreed. Next, the man asked if he could stand across the room because near the computers the network signal was low.
My friend agreed. The man went and stood by the door of the Internet café and pretended to make a call. My friend went back to using the computer. Two minutes later he glanced over at the door and the man was gone. He chased after him but it was too late. I told him he should be grateful because at least the thief had left the SIM card behind so my friend didn’t lose all his numbers.”
This incident gives credence to the line, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Only joking folks; I know that’s not really true, but some days it seems like the criminals have the upper hand. However, when it comes to protecting cell phones, we all need to be more proactive. I would like to suggest that we should learn from law enforcement officials in other nations, who are fighting this vexing problem. The UK is a great place to start. Police in the UK were faced with rising crime levels. They studied the situation and found that in 28 percent of all robberies, a mobile phone was at least a partial incentive for the crime.
On Nov. 1, 2002, a new mobile phone database was launched to prevent stolen mobile phones from being used on any UK mobile network, helping to make these devices worthless to thieves. Users can report the IMEI number of their stolen mobile to their UK network operator and the phone and SIM card can be canceled. This new shared database was set up by all UK mobile phone operators and the Global System for Mobiles Association (GSMA).
The database is complemented by the Mobile Telephones (Re-Programming) Act, which came into force in the UK on October 4, 2002. The legislation enables the police to tackle those fueling the trade in stolen mobile phones with penalties of up to five years in prison for those caught reprogramming the IMEI number on mobile phones. The UK government is also pressing manufacturers to ensure that new handsets comply with international GSM standards, introduced on June 1, 2002, which state that the IMEI number should be resistant to change. This would stop the reprogramming problem at the source.
GSMA claims that it would be easy for the shared database, called the Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR), to be used by telecoms globally to help eliminate the scourge of mobile phone theft. GSMA (gsmworld.com) is supported by more than 680 second and third generation wireless network operators working collaboratively to define, prioritize and communicate requirements, as well as key manufacturers and suppliers to the wireless industry. GSMA’s members provide digital wireless services to more than 824 million customers in 193 nations.
STC is a member of GSMA and could be using CEIR to dramatically reduce the incidence of mobile phone theft in the Kingdom. Unfortunately, the government will probably have to create legislation compelling them to do so. In an interesting sidelight, the next time you are traveling, click to gsmworld.com/roaming/gsminfo/roa_sami.shtml to see which telecoms are roaming partners to STC.
For now, preventing the theft of your mobile phone is your responsibility alone. If you think of your cell phone as a SR500 bill, it will help you to be more cautious about flashing it around in public.
Note down your phone’s IMEI number and keep it in your wallet or other safe place. That way if your phone is stolen and you are able to waylay the thief, you will be able to prove that the phone is yours by producing the IMEI number. Most thieves immediately remove the SIM card from the phone, so don’t expect to find the SIM in the mobile, even if you nab the thief moments after the crime. To access your mobile’s IMEI number, key in *#06# and the number will immediately appear on the display.
When you aren’t using your mobile, keep it out of sight. If possible, make sure it is locked with a PIN code and enable all other security features available. These vary by manufacturer. Never leave your phone on view in an unattended car. At least place it under the seat, or lock it away in the glove compartment or in the trunk.
If your phone is stolen, it is important to contact STC to cancel the SIM card. This will not cancel your telephone number. Call 902, with your telephone number and national identity number or Iqama number in hand. If you don’t speak English, press 5, immediately after the automatic answering service comes on at 902, to get an English-speaking representative of STC. If you have any difficulty, request to speak to the supervisor. Note that during prayer times, after dialing 902 a recording comes on in Arabic only, announcing that the office is closed and then the line is disconnected. Call back after a few minutes. Within the Kingdom, obtain a replacement SIM card from any STC office. If you are outside the Kingdom when your mobile is stolen, call 966-1-455-5555 to report the theft. You can request that STC send out a replacement SIM card by SNAS/DHL courier to your overseas location. Remember, under Saudi law you are responsible for all calls made on your telephone number, so get a stolen SIM card canceled quickly.
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