HK cold on blocking phone thefts

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2012, 12:00am


The government is being urged to follow the American approach to tackling mobile phone theft by setting up a centralised reporting system with key service providers.

But the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) said technical difficulties could undermine the effectiveness of such a system.

The US Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday said it would launch a scheme to combat mobile phone theft, under which a centralised database would be set up to track stolen phones and to prevent them from being used again.

The new database will store the unique serial numbers of mobile phones - known as the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. Anyone whose phone is stolen will be able to report it to their service provider, who will enter the IMEI number into the database to prevent the device from being reactivated by another service provider.

The system - which requires collaboration with major wireless phone service providers - is expected to be up and running across the US in 18 months.

Hong Kong has a mobile phone penetration rate of 180 per cent, according to a global study.

A report by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum released this month also found that Hong Kong ranked first in terms of mobile phone coverage.

And with the increasing popularity of smartphones, the loss of wireless devices has increased about 15 per cent in the city - from 4,487 reported cases in 2010 to 5,177 cases last year, including theft and snatching.

But a spokeswoman for OFCA said the effectiveness of a centralised database was in doubt after the office had studied the idea with police.

They found technical difficulties, including the possibility of IMEI numbers being modified, the fact that some mobile phones do not carry IMEI numbers and the problem of tracking stolen devices resold on the mainland and overseas.

But a telecoms specialist and some trade representatives dismissed these concerns.

Symantec senior systems engineer Wallace Lam Cheuk-fai, a specialist in mobile phone security, said most phones produced by major suppliers in recent years did have an IMEI number. He urged the telecoms watchdog to study the feasibility of the idea further, although he agreed that stolen phones would be untraceable if they were sent elsewhere.

'Not all mobile phone thefts are the result of organised crime,' he said, 'A reporting system would at least prevent the local reuse of lost phones.'

A source close to the police said secondhand dealers were still a key market for stolen devices other than the more valuable gadgets.

The US Congress is planning legislation that will make it a federal crime to tamper with an IMEI number, which can be found by typing *#06# into most mobile phones.

Hong Kong Information Technology Federation president Francis Fong Po-kiu said the new measure would be easy to adopt and would deter local phone thieves. 'But weak governance may make it more difficult to negotiate with major service providers on setting up a centralised database,' Fong said.

Hong Kong Internet Society chairman Charles Mok said the proposal was worth looking at, especially at a time when the government had pledged to review the Telecommunications Ordinance.

A similar reporting system is already in place in Singapore. There, an online tracking system allows buyers of secondhand phones to check if a phone is stolen by inputting its IMEI number on the police website.

A SmarTone spokeswoman said at present it was unlikely the firm would know if a phone was stolen and they would consider joining such a database after looking into the details. A PCCW spokeswoman said the company suspended mobile service immediately after a customer reported a device had been lost, but she would not say whether the firm would consider being part of a centralised system.