Government warns industry over stolen phone 'recycling'

The UK government has come up with a new scheme it hopes will clamp down on the growing problem of thieves using legitimate mobile phone recycling schemes to ‘fence’ stolen handsets.

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The UK government has come up with a new scheme it hopes will clamp down on the growing problem of thieves using legitimate mobile phone recycling schemes to ‘fence’ stolen handsets.

Announced by Home Office minister Alan Campbell, recycling companies are being urged to sign up to a code of conduct that will require them to check second-hand handsets against the National Mobile Phone Register, a database linked to police and mobile network lists of stolen and blocked phones.

The motivation for recycling companies is presumably that anyone buying from them will do so knowing that every effort has been made to make sure that handsets aren’t hot items. Currently, there is no requirement for companies to ask any questions about handsets that come into the hands.

The industry estimates that 100,000 handsets reported stolen to the police find their way back on to the market through the recycling channel, each with an average second-hand value of £25. Indeed, the numbers are probably much higher given that many handsets are never reported stolen or lost.

Although 90 percent of these are blocked within 2 days of being lost, these handsets can still be used abroad. Since many recycled handsets are sent abroad, some suspect that elements of the recycling industry are turning a blind eye to the likelihood that many phones being sold to them are probably stolen.

Mobile phones are hardcoded with a unique electronic serial number (ESN) and an international mobile equipment identifier (IMEI) number, the latter being used by mobile networks to block handsets. These are extremely difficult to bypass.

“By blocking 90 per cent of handsets within 48 hours we are already reducing the incentive for thieves to steal phones and this latest initiative will make it even less profitable for criminals,” said Home Office minister, Alan Campbell.

It is less clear what sanctions that will be imposed if a recycling company does not keep to its end of the bargain, nor how the authorities will know that a breach has been committed. The Home Office release talks in very general terms.

Recycling companies that have signed on the dotted line include Eazyfone, Fonebank, the Royal Mail, and 20:20 Mobile.

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