Last month, the Mumbai Police Crime Branch made an arrest acting on a tip which led to the discovery of an entire cell phone theft racket and uncovered how the city-based courier companies and villagers along the Indo-Bangladesh border were smuggling stolen cellphones across the border. By the end of August, the police were able to recover nearly 800 mobiles and arrest 21 people.
According to the sources, the high-end stolen phones would eventually be smuggled to countries like Nepal and Bangladesh while the old ones would keep circulating in India. In June 2022, constable Sambhaji Kolekar working at the Mumbai crime branch received a tip that a resident in the city was buying lost or stolen cellphones. Subsequently, a team was formed to verify how the operation was working.
Earlier this year, by July 15, the team was reportedly able to recover at least 490 smartphones and arrest the two accused. However, by the next month, the team would have recovered over 600 devices and arrested 12 people in connection with this racket. The police said that these phones “were stolen on buses or snatched by bike-borne perpetrators”.
The prime accused and his modus operandi
One of the perpetrators arrested in August was a villager from Tripura, a state close to the border, who told the police how the stolen phones were smuggled into Bangladesh. According to police sources, once the device is stolen from Mumbai its images and details are uploaded on a WhatsApp group which also has people from Bangladesh and Nepal. Subsequently, the selected phones are then packed in boxes and sent to Bangladesh.
According to the Mumbai police, one of the seven gang members and the prime accused of the racket is Ashfaq Ahmed Abdul Aziz Sheikh. “On the surface, he was a teacher at a Madarasa but in reality, he was a prime receiver of stolen phones. He was sending the phones to Nepal and Bangladesh through his contacts,” an officer told the media.
Sheikh was a part of 43 WhatsApp groups where he auctioned the handsets to people in Nepal and Bangladesh after changing the IMEI numbers. Reportedly, his wife and son live in Nepal where he has a bank account which had received Rs. 8 lakh from Nepal and Rs. 6 lakh from Bangladesh respectively, said the police. However, he and his gang members also bought stolen cell phones from mobile snatchers who operate across the financial capital.
“The boxes are then sent to a south Mumbai-based courier company, which has an Agartala, Tripura, address. The accused would collect the order in Agartala and pass it through the porous Indo-Bangladesh border, which is covered with jungles,” said the local police. They added that three people who would collect these stolen phones and sell them in Bangladesh have been identified.
The reason why these stolen cell phones are sold outside India is so that criminals do not have to spend money on erasing the IMEI number, which is traceable by law enforcement in the country. “Once the phone goes to another country, the IMEI number does not have much use for law enforcement agencies,” said the officer with knowledge of the matter.
The police have now managed to recover cell phones that are worth nearly a crore rupees. On the other hand, while the officers have identified the three culprits from Bangladesh they need additional evidence to hand over the case to Bangladeshi authorities for them to take action against these people, said the authorities.
Meanwhile, earlier this week, the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) seized mobile phones that were worth nearly Rs. 40 lakh in West Bengal’s Malda district which is a part of the state that is close to the Bangladesh-India International Border (IB). Reportedly, the consignment seized on Friday had at least 359 cell phones.
The BSF intelligence had been tracking the movement of these smugglers when the troops saw about “10 to 12 suspected smugglers moving towards fencing with bundles when the force reached there…the smugglers fled with the help of thick darkness and bushes. After that the jawans launched a special search operation, during the search, eight bags were recovered in the pit of soil near fencing.”
The authorities with the BSF have indicated that the names of many Indian smugglers have also emerged and an FIR has been lodged against them at the local police station. The cell phones have also been handed over to the police for further investigation and legal action said the BSF.
(With inputs from agencies)