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Hand-held devices are an east target. Stock photo from Pexels

Smartphones stolen in Barcelona turn up in Marrakesh

A profitable black market in smartphones is encouraging the theft of mobile phones in the coastal city of Barcelona.

Published: February 16, 2019, 2:35 pm

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    Every day, in Barcelona alone, more than 330 thefts of mobiles are recorded, Catalonian daily La Vanguardia reported.

    An average of 450 thefts are recorded by the police daily. More than half of those thefts take place in the streets of Ciutat Vella. And in 75 percent of the cases, a smartphone is the object sought after by the thief.

    Criminals discovered long ago that it is a lot more profitable to steal a mobile than a wallet, and even a lot easier. Tourists use their mobiles as cameras, and with a value in many cases around a thousand euros, a mobile device is carried around with open nonchalance and hardly any precautions. A coveted object displayed in public, can be snatched in only a few seconds.

    After the crime, mobile phones begin their dizzying journey that can take them, within a few hours, to any phone shop in a Moroccan city. The northern African country is the main destination of an immensely high percentage of the devices stolen in Barcelona.

    It’s curious, because important brands like Apple have no official stores in the neighboring country, but there are dozens of shops in Casablanca or Marrakesh where they are sold as new. Many users that have had their mobiles stolen, complain that, when activating the geo-location system of the device, they can verify that it is on Moroccan territory.

    Ciutat Vella is the main setting for this type of crime, and the tourists are the victims.

    Phones are stolen because there is a huge black market ready to buy them, without asking where they come from. Theft results in such minimal penalties that it is impossible to dedicate police resources to investigate a group of criminals who are set free the next day anyway.

    The Ciutat Vella chief of police acknowledges that his officers know the streets of the area where all the phones stolen in the rest of the city are taken to be resold – by the criminals who live there.

    The profile of the average mobile thief is a Moroccan minor or teenager who has legally become an adult – or turned 18 – and has decided to live by committing crimes outside of the state-funded guardianship system.

    Alone or in a group, the thieves pick the victims, in a never-ending cycle. “They steal with great ease because people walk carelessly with a mobile in hand. Only if the situation gets complicated, and they detect that it is a high-priced model, will the robbery end up in violence, but that’s in the least number of cases,” explains an investigating official of Ciutat Vella.

    The phone remains in the thief’s hands only for a short time. The area has different safe houses or crime dens [called pisos francos in Spanish] also managed by Moroccans, Algerians or Pakistanis who buy any device, and they pay in cash for turned-on, turned-off, blocked or damaged goods. They meet at a bar, and the thief typically receives up to 200 or 300 euros in cash, depending on the model.

    The vast majority of these mobiles are stored in safe houses for a few days before they are transported, via land or sea, by plane in suitcases or postal packs, to Morocco. Some of the ill-begotten merchandise goes to Algeria, with a first stop in Marseille.

    This is the itinerary which detectives have been able to follow in recent operations carried out in which people who acted mainly as reception points for stolen phones, were targeted.

    Other devices end up as scrap or intact in internet cafes and mobile-phone shops managed by Pakistanis in the Raval neighbourhood of the city. The Paki shopowners take the most care when dealing with stolen goods and they are hardest to catch, police sources explain.

    Internet cafes and shops that sell secondhand phones, have an obligation to send a weekly listing to the Regional Administrative Unit [Urpa] of the police in Barcelona, noting the IMEI numbers of the smartphones for sale.

    IMEI means International Mobile Equipment Identity and it is a unique identifier that each mobile carries. No other telephone in the world has the same 15-number combination of an IMEI, and when the device is connected to a network it automatically sends that identifier.

    It is a kind of unique ID, with which it can be traced without fail throughout the entire world. Knowing that number allows the device to be blocked in case of theft.

    But as it happens, only a negligible percentage of victims of a mobile theft keep the IMEI number safely written down somewhere. Memorizing it is difficult – it is printed on the telephone’s box when it is purchased, and if the owner of the stolen device is a tourist passing through, it becomes near impossible to supplement the police report.

    Despite the difficulties, Urpa has designed its own computer application to compare the IMEI references weekly in all the police reports in Catalonia with the listings sent to them by those internet cafes and secondhand shops. They receive some 1 500 references weekly of reported stolen goods. The immense majority of them are smartphones.

    But it is hard to detect stolen pieces in the listings that the shops hand over to the police. “If they work with products of a dubious origin, they won’t give us the ID number, and since they also don’t have to keep a mobile for a period of time due to our control, they get rid of them quickly,” an Urpa official explained.

    This unit carries out surprise inspections in these shops and they do find devices that had been reported as stolen. Another loophole in the system is the phone repair shops, where foreigners are increasingly setting up new businesses, subject to no type of control at all.

    Phones are disassembled, and new ones can be assembled with an IMEI created through a computer program that hides the old IMEI.

    The investigation unit of Barcelona’s municipal police managed to break up a criminal organisation composed of members of the same Roma family who – apart from stealing tourist vehicles in the city’s parking lots – were selling all the stolen goods in a flat on Agricultura Street.

    At that reception site in the Besòs neighbourhood, detectives found goods valued at €300 000. Those arrested, three of whom were sent to prison, were selling stolen goods from their flat, where they also lived. They would also would dispatch the hot items to other properties in Ciutat Vella. When the police entered the house, they only found four mobile phones, which confirms, according to detectives, that stolen smartphones were the most sought-after items.

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