What Do You Do With Stolen Cell Phones?

Or for that matter found cell phones.

In Chicago this past week a young man at the El station, stole an iPhone from someone and ran.

In the process of making his getaway, this guy pushed a 68 year old lady out of the way and she fell and died.

But I was wondering, what do you do with this phone?

You obviously can’t use it as the owner will immediately call the cell phone to have it deactivated.

Are you able to reactivate it somehow with a different company or something? Does a cell phone have a unique identifier somehow? If it does than in this case it seems it’d be fairly easy to catch the guy or at least the guy he sold (or gave) the stolen cell phone to.

I have about 10 cell phones I have found over the past few years. None of them worked at all when I found them as they had their batteries run out. I used a phone charger (not mine) to charge a few of them and they did work, but since I found them years prior, the owner obviously has a new one by now

I don’t own a cell phone so I’m not familiar how this stuff works

I guess my real question is, what’s the market for stolen cell phones? There must be one as people do steal them.

Yes, cell phones have unique identifiers and the industry has a nationwide database of stolen phones so they can’t be used.

But that only affects the communications aspect of the phone. With smartphones like an IPhone, the thief could still listen to your music or play the games downloaded to it.

Until the owner reports it stolen, you could use it. That happened when my car was broken in and I didn’t discover it until hours later. The thief tried to make a lot of international calls (it didn’t work).

But most thieves plan to reprogram the phone and then it’s just like a new one. This has been made harder with various schemes introduced recently, but for a while there, it was easy. Buy a $300 phone programmer gadget, the same ones the cell phone companies use, and you can reprogram any phone to look like any other.

There were scanners that went to overpasses over freeways and captured the essential info from phones used in cars as they drove by. Then they stuck those numbers in other phones and the bills went to the original phone number holders. Of course, this didn’t last long, since after the first bill for $5000 arrives, the jig is up, but the thief can rent a phone profitably until then.

But the IDs are tied to ESN (Electronic Serial Numbers), and that can be changed. That’s what a phone programmer gadget does.

Sell it on eBay and be in the wind by the time the buyer finds out that it’s stolen.

As for stolen phones, any phones have chips in them that can be replaced or reprogrammed fairly cheaply. One could probably steal, say, an iPhone, which I’m pretty sure is in this category, then replace the chip and sell it for $100 profit or so.

As for lost ones, I’ve only found one that still worked once or twice, and each time I found the “Mom” entry, since almost everyone will have that in there and called that number and informed them that I found that phone, they were entered as “Mom”, and where I was putting it to be found (eg, lost and found at the university or whatever).

You can get the IMEI number blacklisted and if it is a GSM phone you also need to cancel the IMSI number for your SIM card.


It doesn’t appear that blacklisting will do anything if the phone is sent to another country.

Many folks code an entry called ICE (“In Case of Emergency”) on our cellphones that should also work in this case. Mine points to my wife’s mobile phone number.

The last time my [android-based] cellphone was automatically upgraded by Verizon, they forced me to code in a password each time I re-enable the screen which you have to enter to use the cellphone. I originally assumed that this effectively removed the usefulness of that ICE number, as presumably someone who found my cellphone (perhaps on my comatose body) wouldn’t know the password.

But there are two buttons you can touch/use on that password screen without knowing the password.

“Emergency Call” presumably dials 911 (I say “presumably” because I’m not about to touch it to find out for sure).

I wasn’t sure what “Emergency Contacts” (the other entry) would do, but I just got bold/foolhardy enough to touch that entry and a screen popped up with one button on it labelled “ICE 1” and my wife’s name. When I touched that button my wife’s entry showed up with all of its contact phone numbers.

I don’t remember ever associating my wife’s entry with that ICE entry, so presumably the cellphone searched my contact list for emergency numbers when I touched that “Emergency Contacts” entry, found the ICE entry, saw that its phone entry matched my wife’s mobile phone entry, and set up its “Emergency Contacts” screen accordingly.

Presumably if I’d programmed several ICE entries (somehow), other buttons would have shown up on that screen.

GSM based phones have an IMEI. CDMA phones have an MEID. This are both unique identifiers for the device.

At my last company, the IMEI was in write-once memory on an IC, and included in several layers of security. We had no practical way to overwrite it.

There are probably phones that are…deficient…in security. But I certainly wouldn’t characterize it as easy to overcome in the general case.


If the device is blacklisted or disabled by the phone company, they sometimes call the manufacturer and claim that it is defective, won’t power on, the screen is dead, etc; and try to set up a repair to get the device replaced. New device = new IMEI or MEID.

Oh wait, it’s stolen? I bought this off eBay!!!