Cellphone theft is a huge problem in Argentina. Over the past 2 years, 3 million cellphones have been stolen in Argentina. That’s around 200 per hour. Yesterday, together with ENACOM, the ministries of security and communication presented their plan to stamp out phone theft.
“Cellphone theft is one of the most terrible crimes and generates a great deal of uncertainty in society,” said the Minister of Security, Patricia Bullrich. Maybe a bit of an overstatement – we can think of worse crimes: homicide, rape, child abuse – but you can understand what Bullrich is saying. The prevalence of cellphone theft in Argentina certainly does generate fear and uncertainty. We all know someone who’s had their phone stolen out on the streets of Buenos Aires and that’s a less than desirable reality.
“In a lot of cases, they [phone theft and fraud] can result in serious injuries for cellphone owners,” they added, stressing that the central objective of the new plan is to reduce the ubiquitous threat of violence that cellphone theft entails.
So how do Bullrich and co plan to reduce cellphone theft? Sounds like a pretty difficult task right? It’s not like a vow to put more officers out on the streets on the lookout for phone-thieves would stop the problem. The idea put forward is less direct than that: dis-incentivizing potential thieves by making it more difficult, or hopefully impossible, to use stolen phones. To achieve that goal, a number of measures and a fair bit of time will be needed. So let’s break it down.
The current system and its problems
Right now, you can walk into a kiosk, ask for a prepaid sim, pop it straight into your phone and you’re set. And if you’re not happy with the rates you’re getting, you can buy a sim for another operator. Super convenient, right? Sure but the price of that convenience is that it apparently facilitates theft. Around a half of cell phone users around the country are not registered with their operator. If someone steals your phone, your operator won’t be able to trace it and thieves can easily change the sim card, meaning they can be resold and used without any real difficulty.
With the current, anonymous system of prepaid sims, for thieves your brand new iPhone 6s looks like a big untraceable and perfectly usable 700 dollar wad of cash. The plan now is to change that, making phones traceable by operators and unusable for anyone apart from you.
The big change: 1 cellphone, 1 sim card, 1 identity
Bullrich explained during the presentation that the government has already taken measures to combat this widespread issues. Over the course of the past year, they’ve taken down around 50 stores dedicated to unlocking phones to work on all networks – a practice that facilitates theft and re-selling. But the illegal trade of phones is so very widespread that such a measure had a negligible overall effect.
The new proposition is to cut the problem at its roots by implementing a system through which operators will be able to detect thefts and deactivate stolen devices. The system will be implemented in March, by which time operators will have had enough time to gather information on new cellphones and their users and create a register.
Every cell phone comes with its own individual serial number (or IMEI). With the government’s new proposal in place, that serial number will have to correspond to the user’s sim card and attempts to use a different sim will prompt an ID verification. Additionally, a ‘black list’ will be created listing all reported cases of stolen phones which operators will be able to deactivate. Operators will also be able detect when the IMEI of a cellular device is being tampered with, in which case, the relevant cellphone will also be deactivated.
The head of ENACOM, Miguel de Godoy, estimated that it would take 18 months to create a complete register of all active devices in the country. By that point, each cell phone will correspond to a single identity, a single serial number and a single sim card which should, if all goes to plan, completely disincentivize thieves. Think of it as your cellphone being like a bankcard: your identity and details, pin number (the serial number) and your bank (your telephone operator) will all be invisibly imprinted on your phone, meaning that no one else can use it.
And the best bit it, this doesn’t mean the end of pre-paid sims. The details on how exactly the information will be gathered for prepaid users hasn’t been concretely decided, the main idea floating around is that when you go into a kiosk and ask for a prepaid sim, the retailer will register the identity of the buyer upon purchase.