In recent months there have been a number articles in the media regarding the blocking of lost or stolen mobile phones on mobile networks in New Zealand. Due to the inability of some media organisations these days to string together a tech story that makes any sense, it’s probably left some people a little confused as to what is and isn’t actually happening in the marketplace right now. Contrary to some of these articles, a register of lost or stolen handsets is maintained in New Zealand, and this data is shared between Vodafone and Telecom. The bigger story however is that the black market for stolen phones in NZ continues to exist, in part because 2degrees doesn’t currently block lost or stolen handsets.
Every mobile device has a unique serial number known as an the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. Vodafone have maintained a list of lost or stolen IMEI numbers for many years, and it only took a phone call to them and your phone would be blocked from their network by loading the IMEI in an Equipment Identify Register (EIR) within the mobile network, meaning the phone was useless to anybody who may have acquired your handset since it could no longer be used on their network. Because Telecom’s CDMA network used handsets that weren’t compatible with Vodafone’s GSM and WCDMA networks, there was no need to share data as phones couldn’t be moved between networks. With the launch of Telecom’s XT network which uses the same WCDMA 3G technology as Vodafone, the ability to move handsets between the two networks became a reality. When 2degrees launched their network, initially only the GSM component, followed later by their WCDMA 3G network, it finally became possible to use a single handset across NZ’s three mobile networks - assuming of course that the handset was compatible with the different frequency bands used.
Both Vodafone and Telecom presently share IMEI data and maintain a list of handsets that have been reported lost or stolen. Telecom may also block phones where the purchaser has defaulted on a term contract with a subsidised handset. Sharing this data means this means if your phone is reported lost or stolen to either network it will be blocked on both networks. 2degrees aren’t part of this, and handsets that are blocked from the Vodafone and Telecom networks can continue to be used on the 2degrees network. One of the consequences of this is a growing black market for phones being sold on sites such as Trade Me that are marked as working only on 2degrees, which one assumes is because the seller of the device is fully aware that the handset they are selling has been blocked on both the Vodafone and Telecom networks. A number of threads have popped up on Geekzone in recent months where buyers have purchased phones from Trade Me, and upon trying a Vodafone or Telecom SIM card finding that their new phone is barred from the network. Clearly Trade Me can’t be held liable for property sold on their site, but in my opinion Trade Me should have clearly taken some responsibility for blocking auctions for goods that very clearly indicate something fishy was going on.
In the past week talks have taken place between Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees with the goal of 2degrees implementing an EIR on it’s network, and sharing IMEI data with Telecom and Vodafone. This will be a giant leap forward, and will go a long way to reducing the black market for mobile phones here in New Zealand. The big issue 2degrees will face joining such a program now however is that they’re going to end up blocking active handsets on their network, and dealing with angry customers wanting to know why their handset suddenly doesn’t work isn’t going to be easy. The only recourse most people will presumably have will be to file a complaint with the Police, as I doubt 2degrees will want to replace those handsets with new ones for free! The move by 2degrees is a positive one, and it’s a shame it’s taken them so long to implement an EIR, something that’s been pretty much commonplace on mobile networks throughout the world for the last ten or so years.
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Comment by antoniosk, on 19-Aug-2012 20:59
Good, punchy article steve.
I was working at 02-UK when this was turned on, and the breakage was pretty awesome to behold, to say the least. It's a pretty awful message, but it needs to be done, preferably when the problem is relatively small.
The facts are clear; if kit is stolen, kit is stolen. Most people will get that, and no doubt many people will be caught out.
People know where their phone came from; if it falls off the network because of this, they should report the seller to the police. The moral hazard of providing 'safe harbour' for these mobiles when you KNOW they are stolen is not a place any service provider would want to go.
Comment by Rhys Lewis, on 19-Aug-2012 21:38
I've never understood why they don't leave the phone active and feed some information to the police. At one end you could give the number of the SIM currently in the phone, or at the other you could provide location information. Wouldn't it be better to actively pursue criminals rather than switching the phones off? I would have thought that a good number of the phones would be used by people of interest to the police, and this would give them an excuse to go round and have a conversation.
Comment by nickb800, on 19-Aug-2012 21:55
Id imagine that when 2d 'flicks the switch' on this, then a bucket-load of cheap rubbish imported phones with non-unique IMEI's will be flicked off the network too (assuming at least one such phone has been stolen)
Comment by dratsab, on 20-Aug-2012 09:51
@ Rhys Lewis: the problem with what you're saying is that a lot of people with these handsets are not criminals and will believe they have brought the phones legitimately. ....... 2degrees have known about this issue for a long long time and have flatly refused to do anything until recently. I'm surprised their liability hasn't been investigated before now. Moving on, probably the best thing 2degrees could do is an extensive marketing campaign so people know what's coming. I wonder how far below a million active connections we'll see them drop ;-P
Comment by Dave, on 20-Aug-2012 12:38
If 2 Degrees wanted to bring this in gently so as not to affect existing customers surely they could check the date the phone was stolen (I assume the black list has a date stamp on its entries) and then only new stolen phones would be blocked not old ones.
Comment by oxnsox, on 20-Aug-2012 17:21
Thanks for this Steve.
Sure it'll bite 2Degs, but I guess they've got enough market traction to take the small hit (and the wailing and knashing of teeth that those who are affected will enevitibly make).
But a bit of clever promotion and 2degs can turn this to their advantage... I mean, they're the good guys right? They're doing this for our (and their customers) own good, right? Lot'sa warm fuzzie goodie goodness alround. 2Degrees are good at that!!
Comment by Skolink, on 20-Aug-2012 22:22
I would prefer my stolen phone is not blocked, but left active, leaving a trail back to the theives.
Comment by richard, on 20-Aug-2012 22:30
I really think that its a big deal over nothing.
Send a SMS to all phones advising that they are using a stolen phone and to hand it in. Perhaps offer a deal on a cheap phone like the $20-$30 one at the warehouse and be done with it.
The type of person to be using a stolen phone is probably not a high spender so no great loss..
Comment by stevenz, on 21-Aug-2012 20:20
@dratsab "the problem with what you're saying is that a lot of people with these handsets are not criminals and will believe they have brought the phones legitimately."
Well, they're receiving stolen goods, whether knowingly or not.
Comment by gregmcc, on 21-Aug-2012 21:17
It's a pitty it's taken 2D this long to implement the blacklist, maybe it's time to also allow access to the database of blocked IEMI's to every one so those that choose to purchase from on-line auction sites can check to see if the phone is blacklisted before bidding
Comment by nickd, on 25-Aug-2012 19:51
Nobody can get mad at Rhys Darby. I'm sure there will be a witty ad on TV with an explanation and him telling off people who have blocked phones and then him calling their mother.
Comment by plambrechtsen, on 26-Aug-2012 11:26
Just noticed that the IMEI checker on Telecom does show if the handset is blocked or not FYI.
Comment by amoola, on 16-Aug-2013 21:40
now you can track any mobile location without any software www.phonestrack.com
Comment by Scott, on 24-Dec-2013 12:23
Thanks so much for this article. Been searching for a few days on how to handle a stolen phone situation. Resolved now. Thanks.