x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Counterfeit phones to be cut off from today

TRA ban on fake handsets takes effect, but India's experience suggests the measure could lead to an outbreak of cloning

DUBAI //If all has gone according to the federal telecoms regulator's plan, users of counterfeit mobile phones will have awoken today to find their handsets crippled by a new ban on fake devices.

The ban, which went into effect just after midnight yesterday, prevents all counterfeit phones from making and receiving calls.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) is targeting any device with an invalid 17 or 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number.

However, a similar ban introduced in India in 2009 only resulted in hundreds of thousands of cases of IMEI code cloning.

"It's not foolproof by any means but it is possible to generate new IMEI numbers using software downloaded from the internet," explained Ashwani Budhiraja, the managing director of the Mobile Standards Alliance of India, which issues IMEI numbers to telecoms operators in India.

Cloning can be done by simply copying the IMEI number off the packaging of a genuine phone or by typing *#06# on a genuine phone to retrieve its number, and then using it on a fake handset.

"It's a very simple but effective and the number can be used thousands of times on different phones.

"It requires the operators to have specialised software to detect it, but that doesn't come cheap so it's not something every operator would use," Mr Budhiraja said.

The IMEI is linked to the chip set used in each cellphone and is unique to it. Phone manufacturers such as Samsung and Nokia make sure their phones have a hard-wired unique IMEI linked to the internal chip set of their phones, thus making them very difficult to change.

"For fake phones, especially from China, there is nothing like that so it's much easier to generate new codes and then change the IMEI on the handset," said Mr Budhiraja.

"What I believe will happen is that these fake phones will be blocked and then maybe within hours or days they will be reactivated with newly generated or cloned IMEI numbers. This will be a continuous cycle. It's been our experience in India," he said.

The TRA took out advertisements in daily newspapers warning people of the impending ban on counterfeit phones.

It said the reason for the move was because substandard parts in such phones could pose a risk to consumers. Incorrectly manufactured batteries, for example, could explode or cause a fire. Counterfeit phones also infringe on the copyright of genuine manufacturers.

But customers remain attracted to fake mobile phones because they look almost identical to the genuine product and come at a fraction of the cost.

"I don't think it will be a problem," said one man who has been using a fake iPhone for the past two months.

"It does pretty much everything the real thing would but it only cost me about Dh500. I think it's from China but I'm not sure."

Another user of a counterfeit phone, who travels frequently to India, said the ban would not deter him.

"I can get the phone reactivated when I go back to India, so it's not such a big deal for me," he said.

Dino Wilkinson, a communications and technology partner at the law firm Norton Rose in Abu Dhabi, agreed that there were ways to circumvent the block.

"It's always a game of cat and mouse between the authorities and those offering the fakes," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if some kind of technical solution to the block is developed to get around the regulations."

But he warned consumers that the ban was for their own good. "Many of these fake devices are made from substandard components, and something like that containing a battery has the potential to develop a fault," he said.

While the TRA ban aims to make fake phones "obsolete", services will not be affected on genuine handsets.


* To find out a mobile phone's IMEI number, dial *#06#, then SMS the number to 8877 to verify whether the phone is a fake.