Monday, April 13, 2009

Like Fertilizer in your Baby Food: 25,000,000 Phones with Fake IMEIs

Jason Lackey

The world is a funny place and there are many who will do some very odd and even criminal things in order to turn a profit. One recent example was the melamine milk scandal, where a chemical used in fertilizer and plastic production was added to watered down milk to make it test higher for protein than it actually was. Some would say that we in the US have little grounds for criticism, having been down a similar path famously portrayed in works such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, others would suggest that perhaps something was lost in the Cultural Revolution that seems unlikely to be replaced by Capitalism. Regardless you see some funny things coming out of China and GSM handsets (cell phones) that have bad IMEIs are one of them.

While a bogus IMEI is unlikely to directly cause painful death or kidney stones, it sure does make tracking down a particular handset a real challenge. In light of the recent Mumbai terror attacks, which were coordinated with mobile phones, authorities in India have a justifiable desire to be able to track individual devices, which is something that unique IMEIs help accomplish. Should things go as planned, as of 15 April 2009 devices lacking proper IMEIs should be locked out of Indian networks.

To see the IMEI of your GSM phone, you can dial:


- which on most phones will return the 15 digit IMEI.

The phones with missing or bogus IMEIs are "unbranded" Chinese made devices, sold through informal channels at user friendly pricepoints.

Up to 8% of handsets in use in India today may be impacted by this problem. I would not be surprised to find that in a number of cases valid IMEI ranges have been used by the handset makers, which would add to the difficulty of identifying which device claiming to have a particular IMEI is the real owner of that unique identifier and which one(s) have dupes. In some cases over a thousand devices have been detected on some networks with the same IMEI.

The sad thing about this whole effort is that using real IMEIs would have been trivial for the original maker of these phones, but now the Indian consumer gets to eat the cost of 25,000,000 phones, many of which represent a considerable investment for their owners.

In the end I see the following outcomes:

Indian Operators - nobody likes to be the grinch that stole the mobile
Indian Consumers - surprise, you're hosed
Indian Device Dealers - think you can sell a Chinese phone in India now?
China Inc - not really doing a stellar job of building the brand here, are they?

Nokia, other well known handset vendors - in times of uncertainty, the known good can command a larger premium

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