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How government effort can curb stolen phone menace

NIGERIA has a thriving phone market, buoyed by a youthful demography and slow-but-steady Internet penetration.

According to the World Bank, Nigeria has the largest mobile market in Sub-Saharan Africa. Recently, MTN Nigeria, the biggest telecommunication company in the nation, disclosed that half of its 74.93 million subscribers’ owned smartphones.

The growth of the mobile phone market is also fueling the exponential surge in the theft of these phones. This, according to experts, is a result of a weakened institutional approach toward curbing the menace of stolen phones in the nation.

While smartphone ownership has grown in the nation, it is still relatively expensive for the average Nigerian. The Alliance for Affordable Internet recently disclosed that owning a smartphone would cost a Nigerian 40 per cent of their monthly income.

It said, “However, there are significant divisions in affordability between regions and countries that suggest smartphones remain inaccessible to many.

“In some regions, people would have to spend far more than the global average. For example, in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, the number surpasses 40 per cent. Even worse, in the Least Developed Countries, the average person would have to spend over half of their monthly income to buy a smartphone.”

Yet, despite having to fork out a considerable amount to own smartphones, Nigerians like Dorcas and Besola Adejimi have had to deal with the theft of their phones.

“I was at my usual junction that day. It was still dark; I mean it is Lagos. When a Sienna pulled up, I didn’t think twice. It was my normal route. They were all men, but it wasn’t the first time I would be entering a ride with only men.

“The car drove off and I was feeling the air on my face, mentally preparing for my day when I was shoved to the middle. I was stunned. The first slap jolted me back to reality. Soon, all the men were beating me and slapping me. I started screaming, but we were in motion.

“I was soon on the floor. Then they grabbed my bag, took my purse, got the money in it, and took my ATM cards. They had a PoS with them,” Dorcas said.

She said her ATM cards were not linked to her accounts that had money in them. She added that they used a wheel spanner on her, called her parents, threatened to cut her left breast and cart her off to an herbalist.

Dorcas said her hearts were in her mouth when all of this was happening. “When they dropped me off, they took my phone and used a lot of rob on my face. I tried going to the police station around my home to report, but they referred me to the station closest to where I was robbed.

“But I was scared of going there because I felt the police were also part of the operation since I heard the driver call one of my assailants an officer. I couldn’t retrieve my line and I just moved on.”

Besola Adejimi, another victim of phone theft, said she had to pay N5,000 when she went to file a complaint at the police station. According to her, the station said it did not have stationaries.

She said, “When I went to file a complaint at my local police station, I was told to pay for stationery. I gave them the N5,000 on me because they mentioned that the station did not have any paper or biro.

“I went to the station the next day to try to track my phone and I was told the device to track my phone was not available at the moment but should they use their human trackers to track the phone, I will have to pay about N25k, and it would take me about three months before they would find it.”

Every day on Twitter, young Nigerians tweet about their robbery experiences. It usually sounds like that of Oluwatosin and Adejimi. There is no verifiable data to draw numbers from, but the frequency of such tweets has become alarming.

According to the president, National Association of Telecoms Subscribers, Adeolu Ogunbanjo, people should not have to go through the horrors of losing their phones and  the disgust of facing the police.

He said, “The situation is so bad that the police must now be forced to empathise with people whose phones were stolen.

“When people go to report to the police, they have to cross so many hurdles. The government should simplify the process to the extent that the moment you report at the DPO level, the police get in touch with a particular directorate of the mobile network operators. It should be simplified for ease on both sides.”

He stated there was a need for subscribers to know the International Mobile Equipment Identity number of their phones as this might aid the police if they were pushed to help.

Ogunbanjo added, “There is a need for subscribers to know the IMEI of their phones. Anyone can use *#606# to get this. The process should be simplified in such a way that either the DPO or the area command, because of the sensitivity of the situation, should be able to handle such cases.

“All area commands should be empowered to go directly to the operator with the IMEI so that the police can request for these phones to be blocked. The process where it is being taken to the police command in the state is too cumbersome. Let the DPO or the area commands be able to address this.

“If it is done like this, people would be able to easily recover their phones because the network operator can bar that phone from being used once the subscriber submits their IMEI.

“They can even track or trace the phone once another person puts in another SIM. Let the process be simplified to this rank levels and let there be a designated officer at all mobile network offices to liaise with the police just on this matter.”

He said the blacklisting of phones after they were stolen would probably aid in the reduction of phone theft. He concluded, “Maybe we can also consider an option where subscribers whose phones have been stolen can go to their telcos, report their stolen phones, prove ownership, and get the phones blocked.

“This would eliminate the police, and telcos can checkmate this by asking the normal questions when you want to unblock your SIM. If we can bar phones, people who steal phones would no longer be properly incentivised to steal phones.”

A security expert, Jackson Ojo, disclosed that the police was the only security outfit with the power to help anyone track their phones. According to him, while the police had the required equipment in selected offices, it was not properly motivated to do its job.

He stated, “I think there is a need to make a law that forces the police to work when stolen phones are reported to them.

“The process of tracking phones is very complicated. Sometimes, the police direct people to Abuja. People have lost confidence. Recently, I needed the help of the police to track my phones. They tracked my phone to Lagos from Port Harcourt and asked me to pay N400,000 in order for them to mobilise policemen from Port Harcourt to Lagos to help me retrieve my phone.

“Why should anyone who has just had their phone stolen pay for help from the police? The police have taken this as a window to extort subscribers and enrich themselves.

“Yes, the police have the capacity to track phones because they have their information communications technology department. And this department handles all crimes pertaining to issues like this.

“They have the capacity on a central level. Apart from the office of the IT in Abuja, and possibly in other central areas, the department doesn’t function in other parts of the country.”

In 2018, THE Sun did an investigative story that uncovered how phones stolen in the United Kingdom found their way to Nigeria.

According to the report, Nigeria’s lack of a proper phone network regulation was the reason why the stolen phones market thrived in the nation.

It said, “Countries across Europe, the US, and South America have signed a deal to effectively blacklist stolen devices. It gives each phone a unique number which is added to a global database when it is reported stolen — making it useless in those nations who are part of the agreement. But Nigeria is yet to sign up.”

One of the industry experts said, “By staying off the blacklist, they are creating the market for stolen mobile phones. If all nations stood together, a mobile would be useless once reported stolen. But countries like Nigeria are effectively inviting illicit imports.”

An expert, who pleaded anonymity, said the nation should consider getting signed to it.

“If there is any international agreement that allows for the blacklisting of stolen phones, we should definitely be happy to be a signatory to it,” the expert said.

According to experts, there was a need for a coordinated effort by every stakeholder in order to reduce the menace of stolen phones.

The regulator of the telecom industry, the Nigerian Communications Commission, disclosed in a now deleted document, that it was set to clamp down on stolen phones.

According to the commission, it intended to start blacklisting the IMEI of phones reported as stolen in a bid to discourage theft.

Confirming the intent of the agency, the Director of Public Affairs, NCC, Ikechukwu Adinde, said, “This system would help curb the rise of stolen phones in the nation. The process of launching it is ongoing as we have already advertised it, consistent with the regulatory process. This is to hire consultants who will be in charge of the device management system.”

In the document published by the NCC, the regulator said it would use the Device Management System, a technology solution that would allow it to disconnect any phone classified as stolen, to combat the menace.

According to it, using the DMS would allow it to track, supervise, and secure the nation’s telecommunications industry. It would also serve as a single interface for mobile and network device management in the nation.

The commission added that while the process had begun, it still needed the approval of the Federal Executive Council before it could be implemented.

The NCC noted that a significant number of counterfeit ICT gadgets had infiltrated the global markets, including Nigeria, and considered the DMS as a solution to curbing this.

Much is not yet known about how the DMS will operate, but telecom experts believe it could signal respite to Nigerians if done properly.

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