A Perfect Storm Increases Cell Phone Thefts


In the depths of the night of April 2, thugs armed with machetes raided the home of Yowasi Kasawuli and three others in Namugoona Zone 1, Rubaga Division in Kampala City.

The thugs only thought about what they wanted: electronic devices, especially cell phones.
They stole Kasawali’s cell phones and then hacked him to death.

Two other residents, Geoffrey Ssematimba, 33, and Geoffrey Mwebaze, 34, also lost their mobile phones to thugs in the brutal attack.

Kasawuli is one of the extreme cases where victims are murdered while criminals target their cell phones.
Although the police have the technology, the suspects who ruthlessly hacked into Kasawuli are still at large.
Kampala Metropolitan Police deputy spokesman Luke Owoyesigyire also revealed that the mobile phones were never found.

Cell phone theft is one of the out-of-control crimes in the country.

Low arrest numbers, low levels of stolen phone recovery, and an undisturbed market for stolen gadgets point to a thriving type of crime that some young people have embraced. They also became more vicious in committing the crimes.

Individual criminals who used to snatch phones from passengers and motorists on congested roads now operate out of meticulously organized gangs.

These often attack pedestrians and also break into homes.
Others even set up roadblocks or set up ambushes against motorists on the roads at dusk.

Herculean task?
Most stolen phones are not recovered. So it invariably follows that a question of why is asked.
Unfortunately, the majority of people whose phones have been stolen and want to get them back are hampered by an unclear process.

This process is so rigorous, costly and largely informal.
The CID spends an annual average of only 45 million shillings to track stolen phones.
Most of this amount is used to obtain call data, according to police reports from 2017 and 2018.

The vast majority of stolen phones that are tracked are those where the suspects committed capital offenses such as financial crimes and cybercrimes.

Between 2017 and 2018, a third of the total phone tracking budget was invested in incidents involving murder.
The police spent 1 million shillings on cases where only phones were stolen and no other offenses were committed against the victims during the same period.

Mr Owoyesigyire said when someone loses a phone they have to report to the police station and then the police start an investigation.

“Victims are generally not supposed to pay anyone to track a stolen phone. All police investigative services are free,” Mr Owoyesigyire said.

The last time police took action to ensure criminals didn’t profit from stealing phones was in 2019 in an operation codenamed Tokoora.
The pursuit of criminals for the phones had led to other crimes such as murder and assault.

They targeted over 111 dealers and store owners where they recovered 6,808 stolen cell phones, 527 laptops, 10 central processing units (CPUs), 38 computer hard drives, three modems, four computer monitors and 15 televisions.

“What is unique about the majority of recovered phones is that each recovered phone has two different serial numbers,” Grace Akullo, the former director of CID, told The Sunday Monitor, adding: “The information is that the embedded serial number is changed using a machine called Venger.”

The operation turned out to be a fascinating revelation of the scale of the problem.
Many cases of stolen phones have been closed by detectives due to lack of funds and equipment to track stolen gadgets.

In fact, 99% of phone theft cases where criminals do not commit other serious crimes do not go beyond taking statements.
Victims should turn to private trackers for help.

Do trackers work?
A renowned Kampala Metropolitan Police phone tracker surnamed Brown told The Sunday Monitor that tracking and successfully recovering a stolen phone is no easy task.

“You have to work with an investigator, who got a court order to get the call data from the telecom companies,” he said, adding, “Every time you do that, you have to pay the telecommunications company.It is only when an amateur thief has stolen the phone that you will find that it has left traces.

Brown said “professional” phone thieves forge serial numbers, making it doubly difficult to track stolen phones. This race of thieves also sell their loot to people who have markets outside the country.

“Sometimes the stolen phone is turned off for months or its serial number is erased. To establish whether the phone has been used, you need to obtain a court order and call data. You can do it so many times. Every time you do it would cost you no less than Shs 100,000,” he said.

Brown said some phones are recovered when victims have spent money that exceeds the original cost of the gadget.
The private telephone tracking system is still rudimentary because it relies on the psychology of the subjects being investigated.

“If you’re lucky the tracked phone has been used, you don’t call the new phone user.” You also get his call data and call the people he contacts. Sometimes you call them and call them fake names and they deny it by telling you their real names,” he said. “You have to have good stories that will keep the receiver in the dialogue.”

Brown’s colleague said that once they found a phone that was stolen three months ago north of the Kampala city ring road. It was being used by someone in Mubende town, Mubende district.

He said they even wired him mobile money several times pretending to be old friends.
Unaware of their motive, they persuaded him to attend a physical meeting where he was to receive gifts. The target did indeed show up to retrieve the gift, only to be arrested by the police and the phone recovered.

They later discovered he was also a victim, after buying the stolen phone from a weekly flea market in Mubende district. Fortunately, he knew the seller who was later arrested. The seller had also purchased the phone from a downtown merchant.

“With the help of the police, we arrested five people before we caught the one who stole the phone on Northern Bypass. The owner of the phone spent a lot of money on the case. He had lost his land titles, his national identity card and academic documents which were in the bag during the robbery. He wanted them back. Some of the documents were recovered from the suspect’s home in Nansana,” he said.

Brown and his colleague said those arrested, except for the real thief, had to raise resources to make up for everything the victim had suffered before being released on police bail.
Brown said many of their customers often want the phone back as soon as possible, which is difficult if the thieves haven’t turned on the phone or used it.

“It’s a waiting game. There are times when they turn on the phone and the trail shows it’s in the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan where we can’t get them back, but the owner has spent more than Shs 400,000 to get call data from telecom companies and our facilitation,” he said.

He said when they fail to recover a stolen phone, their customers often report them to the police and demand a refund.
“The police, even if they know you and are aware of the procedure, will accuse you of obtaining money under false pretenses,” he said.

In 2019, after the police received many of these complaints, they banned private phone trackers.
Police officers in police stations are now reluctant to share the contacts of private telephone tracers with victims for fear of being accused of connivance with the tracers if the stolen objects are not found.

All of this created a perfect storm that emboldened phone thieves to be aggressive and daring in their theft attempts.

Police records
Official police records in 2020 and 2021 show that an average of 4,000 cases of mobile phone theft were recorded each year.

The 2021 annual crime and traffic and road safety report, for example, documented that cases of phone theft increased by 2.4% to 4,143 cases from 4,043 cases in 2020. This despite the fact that the country had a hard lockdown that lasted more than six months.

“Most of the cases are the result of kidnappings of unsuspecting members of the public,” said Mr. Tom Magambo, director of the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID), when the crime report was released last month.

Law enforcement sources familiar with cases of mobile phone theft told the Sunday Monitor the incidents could be more than five times higher than what is recorded.

Police statistics for 2021 show that most of these robberies took place in the Kampala metropolitan area, followed by the Rwizi region (Mbarara and neighboring districts).


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