Kampala, Uganda | URN | Statistics compiled by Criminal Investigations Directorate [CID] indicate Ugandans on average lose mobile phones valued at 4 billion shillings to criminals every year.
Data for three years shows thugs stole 5,630 phones in 2019 which were worth 4.29 Billion Shillings. However, police investigators including the cyber-crime unit ably recovered mobile phones worth 654 million shillings.
The stolen mobile phones in 2019 were the lowest compared to 2018 and 2017 where 6,205 and 6,177 telephones were picked by thugs respectively. Most of the phones are stolen from Kampala city, Wakiso and Mukono districts.
Statistics reveal that 1,688 mobile phones were stolen from people in Kampala in 2019. This translates into 4 mobile phones being lost to criminals every day. CID set up a cybercrime unit three years ago purposely to deal with cyber fraud, phone tracking, electronic fraud, cyber impersonation and cyber harassment.
But the piecemeal recovery of stolen phones and tracking of suspected thieves leaves a question of whether the cybercrime unit can achieve the responsibilities it was formed for.
Emma Semambo, a communication officer in one of the government departments alleges that police phone trackers are after money.
Semambo bases his argument on the fact that he was charged money to track people who stole his laptop and two phones in 2018, but they have never been recovered.
“Those people are money minded. Imagine I made a call to a policeman who they had told is good at tracking phones. Even before listening to my full story, he asked me to pay 200,000 shillings,” Semambo said.
CID spokesperson Charles Twine insists that the cybercrime unit has been doing a recommendable job in tracking and recovering stolen phones. Twine said the phones have been recovered but owners have never come to pick them. However, he does not give figures on unclaimed phones.
Twine adds that some phones are taken to countries like DR Congo, South Sudan and Rwanda.
This according to Twine becomes difficult to continue tracking phones in areas where they have no jurisdiction and networks are different. Police urge stolen phones victims to keep checking with police because some are recovered but owners cannot be traced.
When you lose your mobile phone
Detective Godfrey Kalete appeared before the Anti-Corruption Court Grade One magistrate, Albert Asiimwe in 2019 on two counts of corruption and seeking gratification.
He was accused of soliciting a bribe of Shs 200,000 from Hanan Muhammad as an inducement to track and recover her stolen phone. According to Hanan, the suspect convinced her that he would use his phone tracking expertise to recover her phone.
By the time of his arrest, Kalete had received Shs 70,000 out of the Shs 200,000 that he had asked for from Hanan for his services. Kalete pleaded not guilty to the charges and was remanded to prison.
Just like Hanan, dozens of people lose their phones to thugs in different parts of the country each day. Police records for the last three months show that at least 38 people report mobile phone thefts in Kampala, Wakiso and Mukono districts each day.
50 per cent of the phone theft victims do whatever is possible to try and recover their phones. Some of them end up spending huge sums of money in payments to individual police officers to track and recover their phones just like the case of Hanan.
The procedure of recovering a stolen mobile phone
According to information obtained from police by this publication, the first step is to report to police once a phone is lost or stolen. Once one reports loss or theft of a phone, police issues them a reference number and tries to establish whether or not the phone is still active.
The Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesperson, Patrick Onyango, says after this process, the detective is expected to secure a court order directing the telecom company that phone victim was using to provide the call record and the mobile phone serial number.
“Once the detective gets the printout, they use it to track the stolen mobile phone by looking at other numbers that have since been inserted into the phone and the area of their operations,” Onyango said.
They use these numbers to track down and recover the phones. This sometimes involves arresting some people in contact with the person holding the stolen phones to lead the officers to the actual suspect.
But a reliable source who deals in stolen phones at Cooper Complex each day, says tracking stolen mobile phones using call printouts is very rudimentary.
“We know that the serial numbers can be tracked and therefore we try our best to have the serial number changed within 24 hours. After that you cannot track the phone,” the source told our reporter on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
Adding that ”like me I can crack any phone and change its serial number except for an iPhone. That one I only get spare parts from them.”
This means to track a stolen mobile phone, one has just 24-hour window before its serial number is changed. Past experiences indicate that thieves usually switch off the phones immediately after stealing them and turn them on a few hours later to try and get any information and useful contacts.
The phone will also need to be turned back on in order to flash it and change the serial numbers. Some police officers have privately secured phone tracking software and equipment.
These can track both the motion of the mobile phone number and serial numbers of stolen phones. With this software the officers are able to acquire a code, which is fed into software that works with Google Maps.
The code pinpoints the exact location of the phone. The officers provide private phone tracking services at between Shs 200,000 and Shs 500,000 depending on the make and value of the phone.
Farouk Ssempala who lost his phone, says he opted to pay for the informal phone tracking services because it is fast and there are high chances of recovering the phone. “By the time police gets a court order it is too late. If I have money, I just pay the professional trackers,” Ssempala said.
But police has been fighting to get rid of informal phone tracking service providers from its premises. The best phone tracking team, which used to sit at the Flying Squad Unit headquarters in Kampala, was disbanded together with the unit in April 2018.