How police trace Lost/stolen phone? Legally ‘Block an IMEI number’? (Law in Motion -27)

Kohima, March 31 (NEx): An article in Law in motion (27): Cyber Crimes- 6 written by Rupin Sharma IPS

Topics covered are:

Q-16 What can police do in incidents where mobile handsets are lost/stolen?

Q-17 How police can trace lost/stolen handsets?

Q-18 What else can be done to locate stolen/lost mobile handsets?

Q-19 Can thieves change/alter the IMEI numbers?

Q- 20 Can one legally ‘Block’ an IMEI number? What are the implications of blocking?

Q-21 How can I block my mobile phone?

Law In Motion- 27: Cyber Crimes- 6

Q-16 What can police do in incidents where mobile handsets are lost/stolen?

Ans-16 Incidents regarding Mobile handsets are either not reported/recorded or are merely treated as non-cognizable cases by police. Both are irregular actions by the police, especially the theft cases which are outrightly cognizable offences where FIRs need to be registered. By not taking note of the missing or theft of handsets, police is opening up a pandora’s box – it is indirectly allowing the handsets to be used in other crimes – both traditional or cyber-crimes or even crimes by impersonation.

If police registers the incidents and becomes proactive in detection and
investigation of such cases, these could lead to huge and massive successes for police.

In police parlance, one of the parameters to measure performance is the number of cases detected by police. Given how the system of mobile telephony works, theft/loss of mobile phones should be the easiest crimes to detect. The recovery of stolen mobiles or lost mobiles is perhaps easier to achieve and work-out as compared to any other types of theft/loss. These investigation of these cases and achievements are also likely to help in improving public image of the police besides improving professionalism.

However, the commencement of investigation of these cases has to be
registration of the incidents with the Police Stations as ‘normal crimes’ and not as ‘cyber-crimes’. These are NOT CYBER-CRIMES AT ALL. My police friends should also desist from making the complainants go around in circles to register complaints/reports. The sooner they register, the quicker will be the results.

Secondly, at the State level at least, a stolen/lost mobile handsets data base should be maintained with inputs from the police stations and also opening a window for the civilians to report such incidents. The police headquarters or nodal officer could be entrusted with the responsibility of transferring the cases (or registering Zero FIR/and then transferring the cases) to the concerned jurisdictional police stations.

This interface could also have an interface for the public – where people wanting to purchase ‘used handsets’ could make local inquiries with the database. These inquiries may not be 100% authentic but will be a step forward – a small step in a desirable journey.

Q-17 How police can trace lost/stolen handsets?

Ans-17 To do this, it is important to have a brief overview of how mobile telephony works, from a layman’s perspective.

The mobile service providers which give you SIM-cards and mobile numbers have installed Mobile Towers throughout the length and breadth of their service territory. These mobile towers or ‘cells’ can be seen installed on various high-rise buildings or towers. These cells are usually elongated, triangular pieces and each of the tower-locations, usually has a few such cells. Ideally, each cell transmits signals – electromagnetic waves – in the area. These waves carry the digital signals – whether voice or texts or images or audio-visual signals. Since a ‘cell’ is triangular, it is easy to divide the area a cell services into three parts – 120 degree each.

On the other hand, the mobile handsets are made in such a manner that hey can receive and decipher the signals which the ‘cells’ transmit to the user. However, during the transit and transmission of the signals, the signals are usually encrypted.

When a phone call is connected, each sender’s mobile transmits certain basic details – SIM-number (mobile number), MSISDN number (Mobile Station International Subscriber Directory Number – which is the unique ID given to each SIM by the service provider) and IMEI Number to what we will call a “switching centre”. Besides these, other details sent are the time of call, duration of the call, type of call (voice or text/sms) etc.

Thus, when a police report is made regarding a stolen or lost mobile, if the police asks for the Call Details Records, which is usually done once police starts an investigation subsequent to an FIR, police gets a wealth of information about the caller and the called number.

Suffice to say that based on the SIM-number/mobile number or the IMEI number, the police can narrow down on the person who may be using the mobile number or the mobile handset.

Even if the thief or the current user has thrown or changed the SIM-card or mobile number, if the police asks for details of the Call details on the basis of the IMEI number, the police can know details of the sim-cards which have been used on the stolen/missing handset since it was stolen. This again can help in narrowing down on the current owner, thus making the chances of the recovery/retrieval of the stolen/missing handset better.

If the police put in a decent effort, it can also trace the movements of the criminal or do a bit of questioning of the persons whom the thief has been in touch with to recover the handset.

Meanwhile, it is not common knowledge, not even to the law enforcement agencies but the Telecom Service Providers are duty bound by the terms of their licences to provide Location Based Services (LBS) to the law enforcement agencies, as and when required. Depending on the capabilities and tower-density or cell-density, the telecom service providers can provide not only the Tower Details but also the exact latitude-longitude of the suspect phone-number and the IMEI numbers to the law enforcement agencies, when required.

Q-18 What else can be done to locate stolen/lost mobile handsets?

Ans-18 Some additional ways to locate stolen/lost mobiles are as follows:

(a) Android Device Manager Location History – Each android phone (android phones are used by majority of users) has this inbuilt feature. If the GPS location is turned ‘on’, this feature can be used to track and locate your mobile. This feature is useful only if the internet is turned on. Also the following may need to be done – Settings …. Security and
Location…. Find My Device.
Location history is now called ‘Timeline’.

(b) Finding Lost Phone using Google Photos – Google photos is a default feature of android phones. Depending on whether you have enabled ‘syncing’ feature, all your photos would get uploaded to the google photos feature.

In case your phone is stolen/lost and someone else is using the handset
without changing the login credentials, all new photos he/she clicks would get uploaded and saved to Google photos album. Since you have the login and password credentials to your email on the phone, periodic checks on google photos can give vital clues about the user, including the photos he/she may have clicked after he took possession of the handset.

Other apps like Dropbox or Evernote etc may also throw up similar results.

(c) Finding Phone Using Phone backup and Sync of Phone Manufacturer-

Some of the new Smartphones like those from Samsung, Oppo, Vivo, Redmi etc., have their own sync features and backups. These backups and syncing features are with their own servers and not with google. Therefore, if syncing is enabled, the phones of these companies will sync data and photos and save them to the company servers. These details
can be accessed from newer phones of these companies or through their own portals also.

Needless to mention that these features can be helpful in locating stolen instruments. iPhones from apple also have similar features.

(d) There are also IMEI tracker apps available which can help in tracking
handsets based on IMEI.

Q-19 Can thieves change/alter the IMEI numbers?

Ans-19 Yes. Thieves can use a device known as a ‘flasher’ to change/alter
the IMEI numbers. This device helps connect a mobile handset device to a
computer and modify the IMEI numbers.

Once the IMEI number is altered, it is very difficult to locate the cell phone based on IMEI details.

Q- 20 Can one legally ‘Block’ an IMEI number? What are the implications of blocking?

Ans-20 Yes, the IMEI number can be legally blocked by the user. However, this has to be done through the police or based on the lodging of a police report.

The website http://www.ceir.gov.in allows the owner and the police to block stolen/ lost mobiles based on IMEI numbers. If an IMEI is blocked, the person in possession of the handset would not be able to use the handset any further.

However, the blocking of a handset based on an IMEI is no guarantee for the mobile handset being recovered. In fact, once the handset is blocked based on IMEI, the chances of its being retrieved go down drastically because the user will not be able to connect to the mobile phone network which could afford cues for locating the handset.

Handsets which are blocked based on IMEI can be ‘unblocked’ by the owner
or police following the same procedure as was followed for their blocking.

Q-21 How can I block my mobile phone?

Ans-21 To block your android phone, follow the following steps:

 Go to android.com/find

 Sign in into your Google account

 The lost phone will get a notification

 On the Google map, you will be able to see the exact location of your
phone/handset

 Chose what you want to do with the phone:

(i) Logout from the device

(ii) Logout from all Devices

(iii) Change password to google account

(iv) Enable lock

(v) Erase data

The exact action you want to be taken would depend on what you want to
achieve or what are the authentication levels you have provided in the google
account.

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