The five-step chain of your stolen phone

One of the biggest threats that a mobile phone user faces today is loss or theft of the phone

What you need to know:

  • Tracing the route of your stolen mobile phone

One of the biggest threats that a mobile phone user faces today is loss or theft of the phone, says the Communications Commission of Kenya in an advisory note.

Not only is the mobile valued as a physical device, but the phone may contain personal and financial data stored in the handset or in the phone’s Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card. While a stolen SIM can be barred by a mobile network once the theft has been reported, it is a bit harder to bar the handset from being used with different SIM cards.

And unless the user had protected his or her personal information with a PIN prior to the theft or loss, this data can be accessed by unauthorised persons. Mobile phone theft, therefore, remains a user’s worst nightmare, even with advances in mobile phone security features.

Our writer ALLAN OLINGO follows your stolen mobile phone from the moment the groundsman in the chain snatches it from your hands to when it is eventually sold to someone else.


He does the dirty work of stealing the handset from you and is therefore the hands-on guy in the black market. His appearance and demeanor varies; he may be clean, smartly dressed and urban, or dirty, unkempt and passing off as a parking boy.

He is on the street, he says, because he has to eke out a living, and your phone is his avenue to a meal in his stomach in the evening.

He may use violence or trickery, but whichever way he will have your phone. For the pickpocket, public places like inside matatus, on busy streets and even at concerts are the best hunting grounds.

He may work alone or in collaboration with another one, especially at concerts or such well-populated, enclosed places. If joined by another lout, the two will walk and keep together and set targets to meet, usually through picking your pockets.

Other than the pickpockets, there are others who specialise in break-ins. They will scout for vehicles that seem to have valuables like handbags, laptop computers, i-Pads, cameras and such, then break in and cart away the loot.

The truly “professional” and hardcore type will even break into homes for the same, but because this type of thievery requires a masterly execution, few dare.

Once they get their loot, they contact the army of brokers on the market...


Once the item is stolen, the next person on the chain is always on call and will be willing to buy it from the thieves, who are only after quick cash. He is the broker in this market and acts as the link between the thief and the dealer.

He is smart, always has money with him and is mobile. Most of the time he never hangs around the same place as a precautionary measure. The broker ensures that he buys the item from the thief at minimal cost so that it can fetch a fortune at the dealers.

In the underworld, he is referred to as ‘Dosi’, slang for ‘monied guy’. He pays for the loot in cash and, because of competition from other brokers, also has to ensure that whatever he pays for is attractive enough to not only attract future deals but also referrals from other thieves.

Brokers specialise in particular products to ensure street cred and easier referrals. There are those who deal exclusively in phones, cameras, laptops or household electronics.

After the purchase, the broker then contacts a dealer, where the loot is ‘off-loaded’ and is prepared to make a return to the market.


He is suave, sleek and sharply dressed. On a normal day you would mistake him for a business executive working for some blue chip company in town. He runs his own business... only that he is deep in the electronics black-market, an underworld so secretive and protected that it is hard to penetrate.

Over the weekends he closes his shop, but only to the public. Within his network of thievery and deceipt, weekends are good days to take stock of business and advantage of lax security on the streets.

He operates from what he calls ‘Base’, which could be a phone repair shop or even a barber shop, and maintains a tight leash on his network of groundsmen and brokers. He may pay in cash or be left with the item to sell then pay the broker his due.

The Dealer knows his market well and is choosy on what to take and what is not worth the risk. The hot cakes in this market include high-end phones and laptop computers, as well as watches and other stuff that is all the rage with the upwardly mobile Kenyan youth.

In this unpoliced underworld, The Dealer may specialise, and some in the backstreets of Nairobi are known to forever have the desired loot of Apple products, Samsung phones and tablets, BlackBerrys and Sony XPerias.

Their target market is the young man or woman who desires these things but cannot afford them, hence the rock-bottom prices on the wrong side of Nairobi for high-end gadgets.

He still makes a tidy sum out of it though, despite those unbelievable prices. This is because he gets them from The Broker for a song. A Samsung Galaxy SIII phone, for instance, costs him about Sh6,000, so even if he sells it for about Sh15,000, he would still make a tidy sum.

The same phone goes for about Sh36,000 on the retail market, while a tablet that costs about Sh50,000 is priced at between Sh20,000 and Sh25,000 at ‘The Base’.

To avoid tracking by the police, especially when dealing with mobile phones, The Dealer never uses SIM cards associated with him to test the gadgets, which is why the buyer is always the one who gets nabbed when things go awry.


He comes in handy when the phone has tracking devices or passwords. He passes as the phone repair man operating from a tiny joint with blaring music and disco lights all over, but his core business is to erase any memory and data on stolen phones, including disabling tracking devices.

He uses specialised software that guarantees ease of use by bypassing manufacturer terms and conditions, especially on Internet access and security. For instance, for you to access the Internet on a BlackBerry, you have to register with the network provider, who then links you with the mother servers.

However, The Technician will bypass that requirement, hence make the device Internet-ready and undetectable by Research In Motion, the makers of BlackBerry devices.

As technology becomes more complicated, so is the techo-savviness of this man. He maintains a bank of all important mobile phone software and, by simply plugging the gadget into a laptop computer, deletes anything that could be used to track down the gadget, as well as any history on it regarding the previous user.


The is the average urban youth after a flashy lifestyle he can’t afford, and thus is the character who oils this thriving electronics black market. He cannot afford the retail prices of these items, but because of greed and peer pressure, he has found a way to ‘afford’ them.

Most of the times, when the deal goes wrong and the police are involved, he is the one who bears the brunt on behalf of everyone on the chain of theft because he is the one caught with the stolen item.

The buyer, then, is the unwilling, ignorant bait in this chain. The Thief, The Broker, The Dealer and The Technician have their hands clean and rarely will have any evidence on them.