Cell phone theft has become a full-fledged organized crime operation in Colombia, one that has an international reach, with more than 2 million cell phones stolen last year, according to an investigative report by El Espacio published Thursday.
According to Tulio Angel, president of the Association of Cellular Telephone Companies (Asocel), 5,373 cell phones were stolen a day on average in Colombia in 2009, with a total of 2.1 million phones over the year.
Bogota, the report states, is the city with the highest level of cell phone thefts, registering 2,300 cases per day.
While the majority of these cell phones are resold in informal, illegal markets within Colombia, authorities have discovered that a fraction of them are channeled by mafia networks and sold internationally, mainly in Ecuador and Peru, but also in Brazil and Argentina.
According to the report, the main market for stolen cell phones is in Bogota, near Calle 13, where you can get a perfect condition BlackBerry, which costs between $400 to $600 in the store, for only $150. The report also notes that these informal street markets operate in plain site and “in front of a considerable number of uniformed police officers.”
One of the street vendors even told El Espacio that police officers buy from them, “Here, the sale of stolen goods is legal, everyone knows that, and they come here to buy from us, even the police, because we can sell at lower costs, and the people look for this, it’s economical.”
According to the report, Colombian authorities and phone companies are working in collaboration to design and implement strategies aimed at reducing the amount of cell phone thefts in the country, but are having little success.
“When they steal a phone from a certain operator [of the three service providers in Colombia], it is immediately reported to all three service providers, in order to block that specific cell phone from being activated with another provider. But the thieves make a mockery out of this mechanism, and they find a way to activate them,” the Asocel president admitted.
Reactivating the cell phones, the report continued, is a relatively simple procedure that anyone with a computer can do. It is also a service offered all across the country by cell phone vendors, legal and illegal, who charge between $7 to $30 to “unlock” the phone, depending on the model.
So “Watch out,” the report concludes; with over 2 million cell phones stolen per year, “yours could be next!”