30 May 2024

Cross-border smuggling / Cellphones for a steal: Kenyans robbed to supply East Africa

Syndicates driven by the high demand for cheap handsets are robbing Kenyans to supply the region with stolen mobiles.

Nairobi residents are mugged for their smartphones every 10 minutes, according to the country’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations. These muggings sometimes turn fatal – with at least 10 deaths related to phone theft attacks reported in 2023.

On 14 October 2023, Nairobi police arrested two Kenyans and two Ugandans with 13 stolen smartphones. The suspects led the police to a cellphone repair shop in Nairobi’s Central Business District where ‘technicians’ reset the memories of stolen phones. In another case, detectives arrested a suspect with 265 stolen iPhones and 10 Android phones worth US$70 175 in the city’s Kasarani district. On 5 November, Nyeri police nabbed three suspects at a cellphone repair shop. They had a stash of 417 smartphones and 47 SIM cards.

Ironically, cellphone theft in Kenya has been attributed to increased smartphone penetration, with data showing that up to 61% of Kenyans own smartphones, representing 32 631 924 handsets. This can be compared to 31% smartphone penetration in Uganda, 23.9% in Rwanda, and 25% in Burundi. Image-intensive popular culture, perpetuated in social media, is highly aspirational, driving desire for the latest technology. Where the affordability of new phones is prohibitive, young people’s desire to possess smartphones to access social media fuels the urge to acquire stolen devices.

Nairobi’s Makadara District Police Commander Judith Nyongesa told ENACT that a Nairobi-based syndicate was responsible for stealing smartphones and smuggling them to East Africa’s capital cities, where they are flogged on the black market.

Phone snatchers, pickpockets and even motorbike riders nick phones from members of the public

Kenya’s police say the syndicate involves several actors. Phone snatchers, pickpockets and even motorbike riders steal phones from members of the public. The stolen phones are supplied to phone repair shops often located in Nairobi’s backstreets. There the phones are first used to make online loans, withdraw cash through mobile money transfer platforms such as M-PESA, and even borrow money through mobile banking platforms.

The shop ‘technicians’ then reset the stolen phone’s memory by deleting the data. They use a ‘flasher’ to modify the 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number that is unique to every phone. The devices are repackaged and sent to cities such as Kampala, Bujumbura, Dar es Salaam and Kigali, mostly by runners using public transport. Once in these cities, the phones are supplied to backstreet shops where they are sold cheaply to local residents. In Kampala, a TECNO stolen cellphone can be sold for as little as US$40.

Phone theft syndicates thrive in Nairobi due to this ready market in East Africa’s capital cities, and the weak legal frameworks in other East African states. In 2021, the government, through the Communications Authority of Kenya, enforced the registration of cellphones through IMEI numbers, which also enable stolen or counterfeit phones to be ‘switched off’ (or denied services). However, other cellphone markets in the region have not created aligned legal frameworks, driving the export of stolen phones from Kenya to other East African countries.

East Africa’s capital cities provide phone theft syndicates in Nairobi with a ready market

Barasa Saiya, Head of INTERPOL’s National Central Bureau in Nairobi, told ENACT that curbing smartphone theft would require telecommunications companies in East Africa to share data on blacklisted phones to prevent regional resale. He urged law enforcement agencies to maintain a regional police database of stolen cellphones making tracing possible, and increasing the likelihood of prosecutions of phone thieves.

Increasing public awareness about phone theft syndicates operating in Nairobi and other parts of the country is essential so that people become more vigilant. Regional mobile phone operators could increase the promotion of mobile apps to help users track, locate and remotely disable stolen phones and encourage the adoption of ‘kill switch’ technology to allow their clients to remotely render their stolen phones unusable.

In 2020, the Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK) proposed the introduction of a Device Management System (DMS) to curb emerging and existing techniques used by criminals to operate illegal, stolen and counterfeit phones. An official from CAK told ENACT that the DMS could provide a whitelist of IMEIs that are allowed to access the Global System for Mobile Communications (GMS). This would enable CAK to identify counterfeit devices, and identify and distribute information about reported lost and stolen phones to all mobile network service providers, among other stakeholders. However, this system has not been implemented due to a lawsuit in the High Court of Kenya brought by a group of activists – they oppose the implementation of the DMS on the basis of privacy infringement and inadequate public participation.

Kenya’s government must increase public awareness about phone theft syndicates in the country

Through the Eastern Africa Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation, and with INTERPOL’s help, East African countries should invest in better training and technology equipment, as well as the cross-border investigation and prosecution of criminal syndicates behind phone theft and cybercrime.

The affected East African countries are all members of both the GSM Association (GSMA) and the East African Communication Organisation (EACO). GSMA issues and maintains a database of IMEI numbers, while EACO has a mandate to implement an Equipment Identification Register to tackle counterfeit and illegal phones and block them on both local and international networks. These organisations must help to address the rising concerns of smartphone theft syndicates.

As these countries are all East African Community members, there is an urgent need to adopt regional legal and policy frameworks that create guidelines and stricter penalties to curb this and other tech crimes.

Willis Okumu, Senior Researcher, and Halkano Wario, ROCO, East Africa

Image: Stock


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