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Computer Village: Where stolen phones are bought and sold

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Computer Village, Ikeja, is a very popular place in Lagos, Nigeria. It is acclaimed as Nigeria’s largest technology market because it is like a home of solutions for gadgets such as computers and all the accessories, printers, cameras, compact discs, phones and all the accessories, including memory cards, batteries and chargers, and everything else that has to do with ICT. Beyond that, it is an exceptionally busy market where many high tech companies are well represented and where technicians, app developers and IT experts of all kinds carry out their trade. Thus, true to its name, it is the home of computers and other allied products and it draws patronage (including the ICT needs of individuals and corporate organisations) from across the country.

Beyond this Computer Village, Ikeja, is notorious and characterised by crime, piracy, tax evasion, constraint of space and chaos, all of which experts in the industry have identified as factors undermining its potentials, owing to government’s lack of interest. In this article, a journalist shares his experience in computer village. Finding reveals that stolen phones are bought and resold daily and the illicit trade in the Ikeja-based market is worth billions annually.

When Gbolahan Oke, the Managing Director of a prominent construction company in Opebi, Lagos, bought his brand new BlackBerry Passport in October, the thought of keeping it out of the reach of his employees never crossed his mind. It was not until one morning, three weeks ago, that he realised that he should have taken greater care. Oke stepped out of his office briefly and returned to find his N130,000 ($650) smartphone gone.

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The culprit was his 35-year-old office janitor with over five years under the employ of Oke. Only after the invitation of policemen did she own up to the theft. The janitor, whose identity Oke wished to keep private, confessed that she sold the phone for N25,000 ($125) at Computer Village, Nigeria’s busiest commercial hub for information technology.

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Inside the ring

As Dotun, a hardware trader in Computer Village, explained to our correspondent, selling stolen phones is as easy as can be. He stated that the first port of call for the seller of a stolen gadget is a fence — any of several ‘free agents’ loitering about the seven entrances to the bustling market, calling out to customers interested in buying or selling mobile devices.

To sell a device, Dotun noted, one would need to provide a receipt of purchase for the item on sale. But what if one has no receipt? That is not a problem.

“When it comes to stolen phones, some fences will ask you to sign some documents for them just in case the police trace the stolen phones to them. When the seller and the fence agree on a price, the seller is taken to a shop where the phone is bought and resold as a second-hand phone,” Dotun, who is in his early 20s, explained.

In pricing the phones, he explained further, the first consideration for the agent-buyers is how “clean” the phone is.

“That is, does the phone have scratches and is the battery good? They would test the phone and charge it to confirm. The number of people who are going into the business of buying and reselling such phones is increasing on a daily basis because the people that come to us for second-hand phones are far more than those that want to buy brand new phones,” he added.

With over 100 gadgets-trading fences in Computer Village alone, each selling as many as five phones daily at an average of N20,000 per unit, the illicit trade in the Ikeja-based market is worth billions annually.

Our correspondent gathered that shop owners dealing in second-hand gadgets buy the phones off the sellers via the fences, who get about 15 per cent of the money, while the sellers take the remaining 75 per cent. The shops then resell the devices at whatever prices they choose.

A Computer Village shop owner, who did want his name in print, broke it down: “If the phone goes for N20,000 in the market, the fence that wants to buy will bargain down to about N18,000 so that he can make a gain of about N1,500 or N2,000. It depends on the bargaining power of the person that wants to buy it.

“There are more than 100 fences in this market that buy from thieves or other people who don’t want their phones anymore. They mostly target phones in demand, so that in one or two days, they can sell it off.”

Dotun confirmed this, adding that fences are known to sell phones that were acquired dubiously.

“The boys are many and they are everywhere. You would see them in large numbers at the entrance of Computer Village, at the back entrance to the market and under Ikeja Bridge.”

“They are the ones spoiling the image of the second-hand phone business,” he said.

Dotun, who has over eight years’ experience, further stated that some other notable places where stolen gadgets are sold and bought are in slow-moving traffic and on the streets of Agege market, another bustling market in Lagos.

It is a common sight to find fences selling used phones of different brands in traffic.

He said, “Apart from phones, some sell laptops, iPads and tablets that have been stolen, but they are not as many as phones. Unfortunately, there is no way to identify a gadget that was stolen. It is only when the police comes to arrest someone for selling a stolen phone that one would know.”

Caught in the middle

Phones theft in Lagos, the country’s most populous city of over 11 million inhabitants, has transformed from random, isolated attacks into a supply channel for retailers of second-hand phones in Computer Village.

Isaiah Adebisi, an undergraduate at Lagos City Polytechnic, recalled with trepidation, how he and fellow passengers unwittingly boarded a commercial bus and fell victim to thieves on his way home from work.

He said, “I left Sango at about 11 pm and took a commercial bus to Oshodi and arrived there some minutes to 12 am. The man sitting by the door suddenly locked it and brought out a gun. He collected the phones of everyone in the bus which were mostly BlackBerry.”

Uju-Amaka Ofili, an assistant manager at an advertising agency, also fell prey to a highway robbery incident.

“I was on my way to the office, walking along the road close to Agege bus stop when I felt a slight tug on my handbag from behind. A commercial motorcycle with two men aboard zoomed past me and the one at the back snatched my bag. I had my two phones in the bag — a BlackBerry Curve that cost me about N36,000 and a Nokia X3 of about N20,000. I was shouting for help but no one around budged.”

A thief’s delight

An iphone 6 displayed by a fence
BlackBerry Passport and Bold 5 are some of the phones most sought-after by users of second-hand mobile devices, but iPhone 6, the latest phone range from Apple whose market price ranges from N178,000 ($890) to N250,000 ($1,250), has the highest demand.

“Most customers that want to buy second-hand phones ask for the iPhone 6. Some sell the iPhone 4 at N10, 000. A 16-gigabyte iPhone 5 is about N35,000. The difference in the price between a new phone and a stolen or second-hand phone is huge,” Dotun said.

When our correspondent made checks from fence to fence, many of the second-hand devices were discovered to be selling at more than 400 per cent below their market prices.

One fence who approached this reporter holding an iPhone 6 initially gave the price of the mobile device as N80,000. He eventually agreed to collect N50,000. Other devices spotted included iPhone 5 (N35,000), iPhone 4 (N10,000-N15,000), BlackBerry Passport (N50,000-N80,000), BlackBerry Bold (N10,000), BlackBerry Curve (N10,000), iPad (N30,000), Samsung Tab (N30,000), Samsung S6 Edge (N60,000-N100,000) and Lenovo laptop (N36,000-N45,000).

According to CEO of Aviva Digital Limited, Michael Oseji, there is a certain level of prestige and value that is associated with using an iPhone.

He said, “This is why some thieves target that brand; they know its value.”

Aftersales drama

A trader in Computer Village, speaking on condition of anonymity, narrated his ordeal about getting caught in the police’s net.

The middle-aged man said, “A female customer called me to say she wanted to buy a phone. I told her to come to my office and when she arrived, I introduced her to one of my neighbours who sells ‘London-used’ phones. She bought the phone. One Saturday, after a year, the lady called me to say the phone had a problem and that I should come over to Shasha.

“I went to the place and was immediately picked up by the police; they didn’t even allow me to say anything. They took me straight to Ibadan, Oyo State from Lagos. It was when I got to Ibadan that I learnt that the phone was stolen with a car.”

The trader said the Divisional Police Officer at the station told him that if he would assist in arresting the reseller of the phone, he would be off the hook and he agreed.

According to Dotun, the story is the same for many other traders in the market under the scrutiny of law enforcement agents.

He illustrated how, in one instance, policemen traced a stolen phone to the seller using the BlackBerry Messenger application on the phone.

“When the lady’s phone was stolen, it was reset and resold to a new owner. Then one of her contacts on BBM sent a new invite to be re-added. After the customer accepted the invite, the contact found out the phone was stolen and arranged a meeting with the customer. Then policemen showed up at the meeting and seized the customer, leading to the arrest of the agent and the person who sold the phone,” Dotun explained.

Tracking phones

According to Oseji, the importance of activating or installing tracking features is two-fold.

He explained that most smartphones, like iPhone and Samsung products, come with in-built tracking features, which, if activated after purchase of the device, would automatically lock the device and wipe off all data in the event that it gets stolen.

“This does not mean the person who stole the device cannot use it. It simply means that if you have confidential information, it will be wiped from the device. That is one aspect to it: to protect yourself. The other is the criminal aspect. For those who go to buy these devices, it is criminal because if, for any reason, the police finds out, you will be arrested,” he said.

He explained that for non-Apple devices, though the International Mobile Station Equipment Identity technology may be helpful in tracking the device, its efficiency in terms of data destruction was uncertain.

Oseji said, “We all have confidential information on our phones, especially pictures. Once the phone is stolen, the priority should not be the phone itself, but what is on the phone. Even though the phones can be locked using the (IMEI) technology, I don’t know how efficient it is in terms of destroying the content of the phone. It is better to ensure that all your data is wiped off.

“Tablets, especially Samsung Galaxy and Apple, have the same tracking features as the phones. For laptops, people can buy independent tracking software to put on their laptops, especially Windows laptops, so that if one loses their laptop, it would at least wipe off sensitive information. It is very advisable.

“The same goes for Apple laptops; we install a third-party tracking software. If the laptop is stolen, the moment it comes online, it sends you a signal. But Nigerians don’t bother about all that; we don’t take advantage of those little security details of protecting our devices.”

Enforcing the law

When contacted to react to the increased incidence of phone-targeted robberies, the Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer, Joseph Offor, said that nothing extra needed to be put in place in addition to the already laid-down structure for combating such a crime.

“There is no difference between phones and other valuables that robbers dispossess people of. We’ve been telling people that important gadgets should not be displayed where these crimes have been occurring. The arrangement we are making and the strategy we have is one that will prevent crime generally.

“When you want to cut corners and buy something from someone who does not deal in a particular property or line of business, you are on your own. So when you are arrested, the person must go in,” he said.

According to the police spokesperson, for every second-hand gadget sold, a receipt should be issued. For sellers, he said transactions must be done only with genuine documents associated with that particular item.

“But when somebody has no genuine document and he forges another document to sell the device, the police will know,” Offor added.

National crisis

The past President of the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria, Dr. Chris Uwaje, said that the issue of phone theft was multifaceted and attributed the trend to poverty, frivolity of the users and technology dumping in Nigeria.

“The attitude of mobile phone users is such that most of the time, they use it frivolously. The narrative would change when people start keeping their devices in their bags and pockets. Some even leave them open in the car, and then these hawkers come along and are enticed.

“There is also the issue of business models. Ordinarily, phones are supposed to be a tool on contract; that is, you sign on (with a network operator) and the phone is free. If a phone is on contract, it wouldn’t work for any other person because the phone would have been configured to you,” he said.

According to Uwaje, there is also the issue of technology dumping in Africa as a whole.

“Gadget dumping has been on for a long time and these are recycled commodity phones. Ordinarily, the normal thing is for the Nigerian Communications Commission to prompt network users (operators) that, in addition to their license, they must have a partner that manufacturers and assembles mobile phones in Nigeria. When they want to renew their license, they must show the partner and the plan. The phone production and assemblage will eventually create millions of jobs.

“In terms of technology dumping, when these phones are stolen, they can be sold to terrorists and when that happens, they would be using it as if they are the people who originally owned the phone. That is what is called misplaced identity. It is a national security Issue. It is a national employment issue.

“The hazard of these gadgets, because they are being imported from all over this country, and get spoilt so quickly, constitutes a nuisance that can cause cancer. We have millions of phones in this country that have been dumped. There has to be tight approval for phones, but there also has to be tight approval of software in the phones. There has to be indigenous software that would be capable of residing in the phone when there are phone manufacturing plans, prior to the license of mobile network providers.”

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