Don't underestimate the IMEI


5 Aug 2011
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You can get high-end functions in an imitation phone that costs less than some entry-level models. But there are hidden risks, and you could lose out on useful features too.
News reports have suggested that in the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai, the attackers were allegedly using Chinese cell phones. This was recently proven in court using the handsets' IMEI numbers, which were cross checked against the manufacturer's records. Whenever a call is made from any handset, its unique 16-digit IMEI number appears on the service provider’s network logs, and it can use this number to pin-point the handset’s location within a one-kilometer radius.

Imported phones without IMEI numbers (or which all use the same one) were allowed to operate on Indian networks till earlier this year, but the government's Department of Telecommunications banned them earlier this year. Such phones can be used to get away with serious crimes, but there are also thousands of genuine users who bought these phones because they are so cheap. The ban makes their phones useless, but from a business point of view it also affects the importers of the Chinese and Taiwanese cell phones have been flooding the Indian markets.

Current statistics show that there are 25 million cell phones in use on Indian networks which do not report IMEI numbers. So these phones, which are often cheap knockoffs of genuine cell phone brands, might have been really tempting for the masses, they are a major concern for security. Regardless, they are still available in markets scattered across all towns and cities in India.

In order to get a quick idea of the status of these phones, we headed out to Manish Market, one of Mumbai’s biggest sources of imported electronics. Coincidently, on our way there, our cab driver was watching Doordarshan on his "TV phone" resting on the dashboard. His phone could not only be used for watching a cricket match, but could make calls, exchange SMSes, transfer files via Bluetooth, play MP3 files, take photos, and basically do everything that a multimedia phone is capable of. The cabbie had paid only around Rs 5,000 for the gadget. He didn't even get a bill for it. We’d be least surprised if this TV Phone did not have a valid IMEI number.


On reaching the market we saw phones from random and uncommon brands, cheap knockoffs of genuine and popular brands, and finally genuine second-hand phones. The first category was the most interesting, where we saw brand names like YXTEL, CLOVE, TOP-1, LXD and some simply had ‘Bluetooth’ printed on them. These have completely unique designs, unusual keypads and usually large touchscreens. The most striking thing about these phones is the value for money that they offer. They might not be very usable or refined, but the majority of them are priced between Rs 2,800 and Rs 5,000. A ‘Hi-Phone’—an Apple iPhone knockoff—is available for as little as Rs 4,500, with most of the features in it, including a somewhat functional touch interface. Phones as cheap as Rs 2,800 also include features such as video recording, FM radio, large screen, Bluetooth, games, unique design, loud speaker, MP3 player, and above all good call and sound quality.

On a side note, phones are just the tip of the iceberg, there are MP3 players, DVD players, portable video cameras, digital cameras, you name it and you’ll find it. It is truly engaging to see the variety of Chinese products available, especially portable gadgets. The most shocking part is the endless rows of Chinese mobile phone knockoffs of brands such as Nokia, Apple, Samsung and many more. The shopkeepers’ audacity is even more amusing; they sell them by telling their customers exactly which models they have imitations of. Some retail shops are quite large and some are as tiny as fruit-carts.

The shopkeers also mostly insist that the phones have IMEI numbers—although whether these are valid and unique cannot be proven. In addition, their overall build quality isn’t very good, keypads are awkward to use, and even the touch screens are nowhere near as sensitive as the ones on their genuine counterparts. Video and photo quality is just about average. More importantly, these phones don’t have regular software. They use their own OSes (often simple Java interfaces) and therefore installing regular applications will usually not be possible. They don’t offer any warranty or support, no bill and no service centers. Most of these phones can be bought without any paperwork and no questions are asked.

The importance of the IMEI

Even if your phone doesn't stop working one day, a unique and valid IMEI number is important. IMEI stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity, and the 16-digit IMEI code is physically and digital marked on all GSM and UTSM (the third-generation telecommunication technology) devices. This code helps network service providers to allow or block service to devices. If you type *#06# on a handset, the number displayed on screen is the IMEI code, which should be unique to that particular handset. This code is like a fingerprint of a cellphone. Whenever a call originates from a device, this number is registered at the network provider's back end, so the handset can then be authenticated. Any interaction, be it phone calls, messages or data transfer, gets mapped to this code. That's how you can just call the service provider and ask them to block the phone by using the IMEI code when it phone is lost or stolen, to make it unusable. Now, what if someone swaps the SIM card with another one, hence changing the service provider? Well, here’s some interesting insight!

Tracking a cell phone

There are services and utilities that use the IMEI in addition to other tricks to help users keep track of their cell phones. Registered users can even track their phone if it gets lost or stolen. Micro LMTS, where LMTS stands for Lost Mobile Tracking System, is a stealth application which not only finds lost cell phones but can also alert users via SMS if the SIM card of the phone is changed. Furthermore, the message also contains the new phone number and its location, helping users to get it back.

Here’s how they do it. Whenever the SIM card is changed, the IMSI—International Mobile Subscriber Identity—also changes. LMTS detects this change, and sends a message to your pre-defined alternative number. The download instructions, prices and other details are available on their website,

Other products on the market let users receive logs of the calls originated from the newly installed SIM card on a stolen phone. Even the use of personal data can be prevented by deleting contacts, SMSes and other multimedia content with the help of alternate numbers that are registered and coupled with the registered phone and SIM which is lost. Quite interestingly, users can even receive the geographic location, the address anywhere in the country of the nearest cell tower beaming to the stolen phone with the newly inserted SIM card.

So much is achievable when your handset has a valid digital fingerprint—the IMEI number. A phone that doesn’t have this digital fingerprint cannot be traced, if ever lost. So make sure you know what you're getting when you decide t pick up one of these cheap, tempting, feature-rich phones.

Source : Chip magazine.
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