Wednesday May 22, 2024

Smuggled, non-PTA approved cell phones swamp Pakistan’s markets, online platforms: industry

By Jawwad Rizvi
May 10, 2024
A shopkeeper can be seen showing mobile phones to a customer. — APP/File
A shopkeeper can be seen showing mobile phones to a customer. — APP/File

LAHORE: A thriving black market for cell phones continues to flourish in the country, with smuggled devices sold openly in major cities and online platforms, despite government efforts to crack down on the illegal trade, industry and trade officials said on Thursday.

"The sale of non-PTA approved smuggled cell phones, including duplicated, cloned, or stolen devices, continues unabated in Pakistan, with sellers using online platforms and websites to peddle their wares," a industry official said.

These devices are being smuggled into Pakistan through various channels and then distributed in the different cell phone selling markets of Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta, and other cities.

"The sellers of these smuggled phones are daring enough to sell them on online platforms," the official added.According to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, the modification or alteration/patching of devices to bypass the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) is illegal. Clause 18 of PECA deals with the tampering of communication equipment. However, these sellers openly violate the laws since huge money is involved in the businesses.

A high-end cellphone with a price tag starting from Rs80,000 is commonly sold in this grey market after patching to bypass the PTA Device Identification, Registration, and Blocking System (DIRBS). The DIRBS system was introduced and implemented by the government of Pakistan in 2019 to close the loophole of revenue loss to the exchequer.

Under the system, every cellphone used in Pakistan has to get approval from DIRBS. The companies selling phones in Pakistan already have their entire inventory of stocks, and the IMEI numbers are PTA approved. However, cell phones brought from other countries need to get PTA DIRBS approval. For approval, users have to apply to PTA and pay the approved duties and taxes to get the approval certificate to locally use the cellphone.

However, the smugglers' network operating in the country has brought non-PTA approved phones into the country. They sold them in the markets and online platforms after patching these cellphones with duplicated/cloned IMEI numbers.

The chairman of FBR did not respond to the query on mobile smuggling until the filing of the report.A spokesperson for the PTA, responding to The News queries, said, "PTA, as per available record until 30th December 2023, has successfully blocked 35 million IMEIs, out of which 29.7 million IMEIs are GSMA invalid devices."

"The PTA introduced DIRBS in 2019. The objective of the system has been to ensure that devices having only genuine IMEIs (GSMA DB) are connected to local networks and such IMEIs, which are duplicated/cloned, reported stolen, or of non-standard configuration (GSMA invalid), are not allowed to be connected to the mobile network."

The spokesperson further said, "PTA has neither the legal mandate nor the enforcement capabilities to check and prevent the smuggling of devices into Pakistan. Moreover, the modification or alteration/patching of devices falls under the ambit of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, for which the FIA is the designated agency under the given Act."

However, the PTA has successfully blocked 35 million IMEIs through DIRBS, which includes duplicate, cloned/patched, invalid/fake programmed on the mobile devices.Industry officials said the smuggling of mobile devices and taking action against unabated patching/modifying/tampering of mobile devices in Pakistan falls under the purview of the FBR and FIA; hence, appropriate necessary enforcement actions should be taken by the respective government agencies to address this issue accordingly.

A spokesperson for the FIA said that the PTA blocks the devices which are being registered by replacing the IMEI and causing revenue loss. Presently, the FIA Cyber Crime has registered 25 cases in different Cyber Crime Circles against the accused involved in the tampering of devices.

Furthermore, all the mobiles are being registered by PTA through DIRBS, and they maintain the complete data of mobiles being registered on DIRBS. As far as the amendment in Section 18 of PECA-16, i.e., tampering of devices, is concerned, to make it from non-cognizable to cognizable, this amendment is necessary to apprehend the suspects involved in the tampering of devices and the registration of cases.