IMEI numbers are exclusive 15-digit numbers that help networks to identify mobile phones
Last month, we carried an article on how the Government is mulling over a plan to legalize hordes of unbranded Chinese handsets that have made their way into the country.
Almost a month on, the situation remains the same. Cellular companies are yet to implement the system to bar phones that will effectively render most unbranded Chinese phones useless, since many of them do not possess an IMEI number. It is also unclear if the ban is extended to Chinese phones that do possess an IMEI number (usually a spoofed one, which might actually belong to a different device). In any case, with the ban still not implemented, unbranded Chinese phones continue to sell and are being used by consumers even now. IMEI numbers are exclusive 15-digit numbers that help networks to identify mobile phones. No two phones will share the same IMEI number.
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) had suggested a new method to "legalize" these handsets by issuing fresh IMEI numbers so that consumers are not affected by the barring. They also intended to launch an awareness campaign to make consumers aware of the dangers of using an IMEI-less phone. Cellular companies had developed a software that was to be used to issue fresh IMEI numbers to these handsets. However, their plans seem to have hit a roadblock with the security agencies. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) noted that this software could be used to spoof IMEI numbers or even change the IMEI number of genuine handsets, thereby nullifying its use as a counter-terrorism tool.
Own a Chinese phone?
If you happen to own a Chinese handset, you might as well check your IMEI number by typing *#06# on your phone. Most GSM phones will display the 15-digit IMEI number once you enter this code. Even if you get something that resembles a valid IMEI number, you have an option to crosscheck its authenticity by using the International Numbering Plans website.
While this is not exactly a foolproof method to verify your phone's IMEI number, it is a trustworthy source nevertheless. The service, for example, will be able to distinguish if the IMEI is genuine or fake even if the number is not in their records. We tried entering the IMEI of a new E63, which the site failed to detect. However, it did say that the IMEI is valid and gave us an option to add details about the device. One plausible reason could have been the fact that the E63 is a relatively newer model. To further test the service, we actually used the IMEI from a colleague's Chinese handset. The IMEI, as it turned out, was spoofed and belonged to a Nokia 6267, which might be still in use somewhere on the planet.
The abovementioned little test confirmed our worst fears. Chinese handsets, even those that appear to possess a valid IMEI, could actually be using a spoofed IMEI number. Now, imagine what happens if someone possessing a Chinese phone has the same IMEI as your top-of-the-line, branded handset. If any nefarious activity is detected from that IMEI number, you could be the one who might land in trouble.
The Chinese phone saga will have to be dealt with seriously because as long as these handsets continue to proliferate, the magnitude of the problem is only set to increase. Again, we reiterate that purely assessing according to value-for-money standards, these handsets are unbeatable - along with the value-for-money tag, they also carry an inherent security issue that needs to be addressed.
It is time the Government and cellcos both take a proactive approach to bring this issue to an acceptable conclusion.