On the morning of November 25 last year, Pratik Ahmed – a banker – boarded a local bus at the Shyamoli bus stop, and soon after, discovered his phone was gone.
He instantly got off the bus, borrowed a phone from a shop owner, and called his number. The phone rang, but no one answered the call. He redialled, and this time a man picked up the call. The person on the other end of the line told Pratik that he had found his phone, and Pratik should go to the Shishu Mela gate to collect it.
Desperately seeking to retrieve his Samsung Galaxy J7 Max – which cost him Tk25,900 – Pratik complied. However, upon reaching the spot, he found that his phone had been switched off, and there was no trace of the person who had received the call.
Two days later, Pratik filed a General Diary with the Sher-e-Bangla Nagar police station about his mobile phone.
Law enforcement to the rescue
The Detective Branch of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) carry out regular drives to rescue stolen mobile phones.
On November 27 last year, a DB team discovered 67 mobile phone sets, across three beds, in three separate rooms of a building in Sankar area. This was the result of a drive upon receiving a tip-off against a theft racket.
The team arrested 14 gang members and its ringleader, Sattar.
Later on, police arrested two more of the gang's associates – Akibul Islam at Motalib Plaza and Arman Hossain Sumon at Gulistan Patal Market. These two associates had worked on unlocking phone sets and changing their International Mobile Equipment Identification (IMEI) numbers.
Another 46 phones – which were to be sold at two shops in Motalib Plaza and Gulistan underground market – were recovered from these associates.
The police also seized two laptops and a hard-disk which were used for unlocking and changing the IMEI numbers of the stolen phones.
The police filed a case with the Hazaribagh police station against 17 people for the theft. Jamal Mollah, another ringleader, went into hiding.
What happens to stolen phones?
According to the police, after a phone is stolen, thieves change the phones' original 15-digit IMEI numbers. As a result, the phone sets cannot be traced. The gang then sells the sets at different markets – including in the Gulistan area.
The arrested ringleader, Abdus Sattar, is originally from Cumilla. He led a 25-member team. It was divided into five groups and its members pickpocketed mobile phones at different bus stops across the city every day.
"They wait at different bus stops in the morning, between 8.00am to 11:00pm when the office-going people are busy boarding buses. They are also active from the afternoon to 9:00pm," said Dhaka South Detective Police Inspector Amirul Islam.
According to Amirul, at least five active theft rackets with more than 100 members prowl the city every day at different bus stops.
"These members pickpocket around 100 mobile phones in the city every day," said Amirul Islam.
Though the DB team arrested Sattar's 16-member gang on November 27, all of them are now out on bail.
"I am sure they have resumed their thievery across the city," said DB Inspector Amirul Islam.
The stolen phone market
There are over a hundred makeshift shops – that trade in used mobile phones – on the footpath between the Police Headquarters and the stadium market in Gulistan.
Along with the organised thieves, some independent thieves also sell stolen mobile phones in the Gulistan area – the hub of second-hand phones. There is reportedly another such market for stolen phones in Mirpur 10 intersection.
This correspondent explored the Gulistan market and found the market not only traded cheaper phones, but also had some high-end Apple, HTC, and Samsung sets on display at an unbelievably cheap rate. According to the traders, this business has been running for ages.
Students plus rickshaw and CNG-drivers are the prime customers of cheap, second-hand phones from footpaths.
Kamal Hossain, a trader who sells stolen phones at his makeshift shop in front of Nagar Bhaban, was busy dusting 30 phone sets he had on display.
He switched on a Samsung phone after this correspondent appeared at his shop posing as a buyer. The phone, after it was turned on, displayed a warning on the screen in red letters.
"The phone is not running its official software…" it read. This message indicated that the phone was stolen.
He claimed Tk10,000 for a Samsung M20 phone. The current price of the phone on the market is Tk16,000.
This correspondent found some shops at the stadium market, too, who sell used mobile phones.
Rahamat Electronics sells both new and used mobile phones. But, they are very secretive about the source of the used products.
A salesman of the company, Zakaria, wanted Tk14,900 for a Huawei P30 Pro phone, which has a market price of Tk89,000.
"You are not supposed to ask so many questions about our sources," Zakaria warned. "We buy sets from people who want to sell their used phones," he said, claiming that they also collect vouchers from those who come to sell their phones. However, when this correspondent asked for the voucher of the Huawei P30 Pro, Zakaria could not produce it.
Sazzad Hossain, deputy commissioner of Ramna Division of the DMP, told The Business Standard that they regularly carry out drives against stolen mobile phone sets jointly with the Detective Branch.
"We have also seized stolen mobile sets from the area at different times in the past. We will again launch a drive against the illegal business," said Sazzad Hossain.
Mahbub Alam, joint commissioner DB of DMP told The Business Standard, "Eighty percent of mobile phones traded on Gulistan's footpaths are stolen."
"We will increase our drives against stolen mobile phones as the number of mobile phone thefts has increased," said Mahbub Alam adding that other posh markets also sell stolen sets.
Telecommunication Minister Mustafa Jabbar told The Business Standard that police are responsible for taking action against phone thieves.
"We have already created an IMEI database and now we are working on another database to connect a mobile to a SIM. We think we will be able to complete the process in a year. After this database is done, each and every phone will be identified. Then we will be able to distinguish which one is stolen and which one is not," said Mustafa Jabbar.
Getting your phone back
After carrying out the November 27 drive, the Detective Branch identified ten owners of stolen mobile phone sets. They did so by sending the IMEI numbers to the mobile phone operators for the last used SIM numbers. Among them was Pratik.
The DB called the peoples' numbers and asked them to bring the documents of their phone sets which had IMEI numbers as their proof of ownership.
However, the handover of property was not simple. When, and if, the IMEI numbers matched, the owners had to submit an official application to the court claiming the ownership of their phone sets.
As the DMP had filed a case against the gang of thieves, all the retrieved sets were now a part of a court case. The identified people had to hire lawyers, at a fee of Tk3,000, to represent them. For each application claiming ownership, there were two hearings. If a judge was convinced, the owner then had to go back to the police with a letter containing the judge's approval and finally take their phone home.
Although police seized 113 mobile phone sets during the November 27 drive, they were only able to return nine of them to rightful owners as the thieves had already changed the IMEI numbers of the rest of the phone sets.
Pratik was lucky that DB had intervened before the IMEI number on his phone could be changed. Otherwise, DB would never have been able to trace the phone back to him.
Out of the 113 sets, 34 of them were sent to the Criminal Investigation Department to be unlocked. Owners of the other 68 sets have yet to be identified.