POLICE today urged mobile phone users to sign up to an internet tracking scheme in a bid to shed light on the illegal trade in stolen devices by organised crime gangs in Edinburgh.
Officers believe these criminals may be linked to the export of stolen phones to Africa, a multi-million scam which is booming elsewhere in the UK.
The Operation Arable team, which was formed earlier this year to tackle a rise in street muggings in the Capital, have been tasked with gathering intelligence on stolen phone traders.
The unit believes that different organised crime groups are active in “fencing” the phones, taking their profit from among the 2800 phones reported stolen in the city in the last year.
Police also suspect many of the 6000 phones reported lost in the last 12 months were actually taken by thieves, creating a massive marketplace for criminals to flourish.
Now the force is asking phone owners to sign up to the Immobilise database, a UK-wide scheme via which they can register their device’s serial number. If stolen property is recovered, officers can return it to the owner while using the trail to build up an intelligence picture of how the city’s illegal marketplace operates.
Detective Constable John Pleasance of Operation Arable said: “We’ve been working with the National Mobile Phone Crime Unit in London. Their research has shown that stolen phones are being exported out of the country, often to North Africa and on to sub-Saharan Africa, where they are much more valuable.
“A smartphone here might be worth £400 or £500 but in Africa, where mobile phone use is rapidly growing, they might be worth £700 or £800. The calls cost pennies, so it’s the handsets which are so valuable. At the moment we’ve nothing to indicate that a similar export route out of Edinburgh exists, but with such a high number of phones out there it’s a possibility.
“We’re at the early stages but our information suggests there is a mix in Edinburgh of thieves selling phones in pubs or other places, or offering them to groups or individuals who are involved in selling them on. There’s not one group or central distribution in the city.
“If people sign up to Immobilise, it can provide a trail. It will show where the phones are going when they are stolen and that might reveal whether it was a more organised theft or an opportunistic one.”
The popularity of smartphones, iPods and tablet computers was been blamed for a 16 per cent increase in street robberies in the Capital, prompting the setting up of Operation Arable As well as muggings, thousands of phones have been stolen in break-ins to homes and cars, bag snatches and shop raids in recent years.
DC Pleasance added: “Anyone can log onto the Immobilise website and input personal details, which can be as little as an email address, and the serial number of their phone.
“That serial number is then attached to the person and, in the course of an enquiry, if the phone is recovered from either being lost or stolen, then we can check the database, which will flag up the owner.”
Detective Inspector Gary Cunningham, who is leading Operation Arable, said: “In recent weeks we have been successful in returning stolen devices to their rightful owners as a result of them being registered on the Immobilise database, and we are keen that as many people as possible take advantage of this service, which is completely free.”