Mobile Phone Theft in Latin-America: The example of Costa Rica and the need of coordination among operators

Advised technically by the GSMA and within the framework of SUTEL, Costa Rica became the first country in Latin-America to connect all of its operator networks to the GSMA’s IMEI Database to share stolen mobile phone data.

ICE, Movistar, and Claro as well as Tuyo Movil and Fullmovil chose to use GSMA’s Database to exchange the IMEI information of every device stolen in Costa Rica to ensure those devices are denied access to local networks and the data is available internationally to those of the 800 GSMA operator members in 219 countries and territories ntat are also connected to the IMEI Database. “This list or database will update every 24 hours and the affected user; will have the option to report devices as stolen or missing with the operator in charge of reporting the IMEI to the GSMA. In this way, we hope the mobile phone theft decreases as well as the black market, said George Miley, member of the council of SUTEL.

The Memorandum of Understanding signed by 5 mobile operators of Costa Rica is not only a great advance to the Central-American country, but it also represents a significant milestone for the entire Latin American region and its fight against the growing crime problem in the region. Handset theft has increased significantly in recent years and handsets are becoming more attractive to the thieves. Every stolen phone causes misery, possible violence and psychological consequences for mobile users”, stated James Moran, Security Director of GSMA. He also expressed his hope that the initiative in Costa Rica “serves as an example and model to the rest of the region and we are hoping to see similar developments in other countries very soon”.

GSMA encourages the mobile industry and governments to work together to introduce effective preventive measures and to support a coordinated program country-by-country. A range of initiatives are required to put a truly holistic program of measures in place to combat handset theft and these include the following:

  • Introduction of local legislation to criminalize the unauthorized changing of IMEIs and the importation of fake devices.
  • Increased security measures against thieves, dealers and suppliers of stolen devices.
  • Improved security levels in devices protect the IMEI against unauthorized change.
  • Deployment of EIRs by operators on their networks in order to prevent stolen devices from accessing local networks.
  • Agreement between operators to share stolen handset data across all local networks to render stolen devices useless in the home market.

The GSMA’s IMEI Database solution, which is provided free of charge to GSMA members, provides a facility to support stolen handset data sharing and blocking on an international level. The IMEI Database is designed to act as a global repository of handset data to which GSMA member operators can connect to submit and obtain data. It is the most widely used handset data sharing platform and ensures that the mobile phones reported as stolen in one country will not work in other countries that have signed up to use the Database. The lack of data exchange among operators allows mobile phones migrate from one country to another, that is why sharing stolen IMEIs among operators right across the Latin American region will significantly reduce the value of a stolen mobile device on those markets and tis will lead in a reduction in the levels of mobile device theft and the associated trafficking and smuggling of stolen devices in the region.

“The fight against mobile fraud and the different measures to fight handset theft are the fundamental challenges for the operators in the region which have to be faced on the whole. For that reason, the role of GSMA Latin America is crucial in order to work from a risk analysis which is related to the reality of the region; creating an environment of discussion and data exchange, both essential tools to prevent fraud”, said Diego Bassanelli, Fraud Manager of Telecom Personal Argentina.

The executive is a member of the Security and Fraud Working Group (SEGF) of GSMA Latin America and he concluded by summing up: “We would like to achieve the exchange of device data at a regional level, so it is essential that all operators share this information, in order to block the use of stolen equipment in all of Latin-America. The success of this implementation will emerge from the fluidity and the continuous exchange. However, it would be a mistake to believe that it is enough to just block devices. The great challenge we have is to create, not only the regional blacklist of stolen devices to be blocked (within the GSMA’s IMEIDatabase), but also to establish a fraud intelligence group.”

Different governments in the region are taking additional measures to combat handset theft rand to block the use of stolen devices. The Colombian Government, for instance, started a strategy in April 2011 to deal with legal, technology and security matters related to device theft. One of the initiatives expects to reform the penal code in order to deter the manipulation and reprogramming of the identities of stolen devices.

Another important development in Latin-America is the adoption of a resolution during the “Consejo Permanente Consultivo I” (CCPI) from CITEL in Mar del Plata during 2011 for the creation of a “Regional front against the theft of mobile terminals devices” (CCP.I/RES. 189 (XIX-11)). Among the proposals of this resolution the following provisions stand out:

“To regulate the Exchange of negative databases and the blockade of IMEIs to avoid the activation and the use of stolen mobile phones in other markets helping to control the illegal trade of devices between countries of the region.”

“To use the technologic tools and processes available for the Association of Operators of GSM-GSMA that works together with terminals manufacturers. Among them, there is a negative and centralized list of all of the devices reported as stolen or lost.”

These examples are just the beginning and GSMA is still working on achieving a regional consensus and common approach that is promoted by the conviction that the only way to effectively combat mobile device theft, is by coordinating all the operators and align their activities in Latin-America.


GSMA member companies that wish to request access to the IMEI Database should contact