'Black market' for stolen smartphones exposed

More than 30,000 phones have been stolen in London in the last year

A black market of shops and traders willing to deal in stolen smartphones has been exposed by a BBC London undercover investigation.

Intelligence was received that some shops across a swathe of east London were happy to buy phones from thieves.

Two traders were filmed buying Samsung S3 and iPhone 4 devices from a researcher posing as a thief - despite him making it clear they were stolen.

The shops involved have declined to comment.


Alex McBride, a criminal barrister and author, said: "Handling stolen goods is an offence under the Theft Act, and depending on the value of the goods, it can certainly be a serious offence. If you were handling £250,000 worth of stolen phones a year it would amount to pretty serious criminality. It's irrelevant that you didn't actually do the taking - you are encouraging people to go thieving and robbing by monetising their ill-gotten gains on the black market. In my view, handling stolen goods is just as serious as theft. It carries a 14-year maximum prison sentence."

On receiving tip-offs about numerous rogue businesses, eight used smartphones were acquired by lawful means.

Each smartphone was personalised with images and backgrounds with contacts added, calls made and messages sent.

They were then all blocked or reported stolen to the networks.

The undercover researcher then offered the phones for sale - typically with messages on the screens reading: "This mobile has been stolen. This phone has now been locked. You have been reported to the authorities."

The researcher offered a phone to London Mobiles Ltd in Ilford, saying: "I not buy, I steal, yeah?"

When shown the screen message, the employee laughed and said: "It's stolen. It's very dangerous."

Money One shop made the researcher go outside before handing over cash

That did not stop him offering cash for the phone.

Nearby Ask Mobiles and Computers in Seven Kings, bought four "stolen" mobile phones from the BBC, making the researcher leave the shop before concluding the deals for up to £40.

This was despite the researcher saying on his second visit: "Yeah bruv, I stole two more."

One worker even gave the researcher tips on evading arrest.

He said: "You're mental man, just turn it off, they can track you.

Start Quote

Just a few mouse clicks and the phone is turned from a paper weight back to a useable device again”

End Quote Grant Roughley Essential Forensics

The researcher asked: "Turn it off?"

'Absolutely astounding'

And he was told: "Yeah 'cos they got Sim card inside, throw away the Sim."

The BBC showed its footage to John O'Connor, a former commander of the Met's Flying Squad.

He said: "You have got people so confident and so casual in dealing with what they believe to be stolen property - and encouraging robberies.

"I find it absolutely astounding.

"By providing a conduit for the thieves to be able to convert those stolen phones into money, they're encouraging the commission of offences."

Trader "It's very dangerous" - buyer of 'stolen' phone

All the phones used had 'find-my-phone' style blocks activated, and in theory their IMEI numbers mean they are not useable once reported stolen.

But Grant Roughley, of Essential Forensics, demonstrated to the BBC how simple it was to get around such features - using only a laptop.

He was able to give a device a new IMEI number - effectively changing the phone's fingerprint - meaning it could be used as normal.

And restoring the phone's default software removes "find-my-phone" protection.

Mr Roughley said: "Just a few mouse clicks and the phone is turned from a paperweight back to a useable device again.


Over the past 12 months:

  • 30,430 phones taken in thefts - down 12% on previous year
  • 13,724 phones taken in robberies
  • Equivalent to 80 phones a day being taken
  • More than half of all the thefts on the Tube are of mobile phones

Source: Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police

"A phone stolen this morning could be back on the streets by this afternoon, packaged up as a second hand legitimate phone."

A fundamental redesign of smartphones to place the IMEI number on a 'read-only' part of the device would prevent this. But Mr Roughley said manufacturers have been reluctant to do this.

Samsung and Apple have made no comment.

Carving knife

In total, the BBC received intelligence on some eight shops willing to trade in stolen smartphones.

And it is the victims of street robberies who know the true cost of the crimes rogue phone merchants encourage.

Alex Causton-Ronaldson "I can't walk down the street at night on my own any more" - mugging victim

Alex Causton-Ronaldson, 25, a marketing manager, was left so traumatised after being held up with a carving knife in Clapham that he relocated from London to Norfolk.

He recalled: All of a sudden he came out with this huge knife.

"He said, 'Give me your phone now or I am going to stab you'.

"And all of sudden five other guys just appeared out of nowhere."

Mr Causton-Ronaldson added: "I broke down in tears.

"That's why I can't walk down the street at night on my own any more, it's ridiculous."

BBC London



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    Det Ch Insp Andy Chalmers said: "I believed it was important for the CPS to assess the evidence that the investigation team had found against him (Zalkalns) to reassure Alice's family and the community, who were so affected by her disappearance.

    "The public support for our investigation in the local community was overwhelming.

    "I hope that the CPS's decision that, if he was alive, Zalkalns would have been charged with Alice's murder will in some way help the community come to terms."


    Police also revealed that Zalkalns had returned twice to the area where Alice was last seen and had searched her name online as reports of her disappearance emerged.


    The family added: "Although we now have certain information about how Alice died, we are still left with some serious unanswered questions about what the authorities knew or should have known about the man who is believed to have killed our daughter when he came to the UK."


    In a statement today, Alice's family said: "It remains impossible to describe the pain of losing Alice. Her death has left a hole in our lives that can never be filled.

    Alice's family Alice's father Jose, mother Rosalind Hodgkiss and sister Nina Gross

    "Every day is a reminder of her life and her loss, and it is hard to imagine a future in which we can find peace and healing.

    "Her brutal murder remains shocking, an appalling senseless act that is still difficult to believe or understand."


    Arnis Zalkalns was first linked to Alice's disappearance after he was filmed cycling along Brentford Lock canal towpath shortly after the school girl walked along it.

    Arnis Zalkalns

    Key points:

    • At a press conference held today, the Met said the key suspect in her disappearance, Arnis Zalkalns, would have been charged with Alice Gross' murder
    • His body was found hanged in a park several days after the 14-year-old's body was discovered
    • Police said the motive for her death was "most likely sexual"
    • Alice went missing on 28 August near to her home in Hanwell, west London
    • She died from compression of the chest
    10:17: Danny Shaw Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

    Alice's body weighed down with bricks, sections of tree trunks, covered with branches. The bag used to conceal her body matched the next bag on roll from Zalkalns' workplace.


    Although police think the motive was sexual, there was no evidence that she was sexually assaulted, said BBC London reporter Nick Beake who is at the press conference.

    10:01: News on the hour BBC London 94.9 Radio

    Get the latest from the press conference on Alice Gross with reporter Anna O'Neill in the 10:00 bulletin.


    Her cause of death was given as compression of chest probably caused by a heavier body lying on and crushing her weaker body.

    The conclusion was reached by a process of elimination as no other obvious marks or injuries were found on her body.


    Her cause of death was "compressive asphyxia".

    Alice Gross
    09:39: Danny Shaw Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

    Police say even if they'd known earlier about Mr Zalkalns' murder conviction in Latvia it would not have saved Alice.


    No-one else was involved in Mr Zalkalns' death. He was found hanged in woodland in Boston Manor Park, near Hanwell, on 4 October.

    Check BBC London's timeline for more details of how Alice's murder.


    Her disappearance captivated the local area, with yellow ribbons and flowers adorning Hanwell throughout her disappearance.

    Flowers and messages of condolence besides the clock tower in Hanwell

    Det Ch Insp Andy Chalmers said the motive for her death was "likely sexual".

    The scientific evidence does not link him directly to her death but evidence as a whole would have been enough to charge him with abduction and murder.


    BBC London's Nick Beake tweets: "Graphic: Alice Gross's body was wrapped in bin bag and weighed down with bricks, logs and a bicycle wheel."


    At a news conference, the Met also said there was no evidence to suggest Mr Zalkalns was responsible for any other reported crime.

    Arnis Zalkalns

    But the 41-year-old Latvian builder was a convicted murderer who had served seven years in prison in his native country for bludgeoning and stabbing his wife Rudite to death.


    The police think Alice was murdered before she was reported missing on 28 August. Her body was found on 30 September.

    09:16: Alice Gross Danny Shaw Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

    The iPhone cover thought to belong to Alice was found hidden in Mr Zalkalns' garden while a cigarette butt with his DNA on was discovered close to her body.

    09:15: Alice Gross

    Alice's disappearance sparked what the Met said was its largest inquiry since the 7/7 bombings in 2005.

    Alice Gross

    Hundreds of officers from several forces around the country helped with the investigation. She was last seen walking along a canal near her home in Hanwell, west London, at the end of August.

    Her body was found more than a month later.


    The CPS says it would have charged Mr Zalkalns if he had been alive although there was no forensic or eyewitness evidence, only circumstantial.


    The Met Police have sent a report to the Crown Prosecution Service saying Arnis Zalkalns was responsible for the murder of 14-year-old school girl Alice Gross.

    09:00: News on the hour Jason Rosam Journalist, BBC London

    In the London News at 09:00, the mayor's cycling commissioner says the consultation into plans to segregate cyclists from traffic along the Embankment.

    And the wife of a Russian spy who was murdered in London in 2006 says what she hopes an inquiry into his death will achieve.

    08:51: On air BBC London 94.9 Radio

    London Mayor Boris Johnson is to go ahead with his flagship cycle superhighway on Victoria Embankment.

    You can tell Vanessa what you think of the plans on BBC London 94.9 from 09:00.

    08:39: Travel BBC Travel

    There are no Virgin or London Midland trains in or out of Euston at the moment due to electrical supply problems in the Wembley area.

    Keep up to date with BBC Travel or on Twitter @BBCLondonTravel

    08:27: TV headlines BBC London News TV

    The headlines in this morning's bulletins include:

    • Public Health England has found that young people in London are the least likely to smoke in the country
    • A care home for the elderly in Rotherhithe is holding cocktail parties to help people with dementia relive their younger years
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    08:17: Thameslink service returns Louise Pepper Journalist, BBC London

    Thameslink trains are back to normal after the disruption yesterday and on Friday following flooding in one of the tunnels.

    08:10: Milder than lately

    It's a bright, chilly start with some patchy ground frost.

    Weather today

    Cloudy conditions will gradually spread from the west, but it should remain dry with a maximum temperature of 9C (48F).

    08:01: Radio headlines Jason Rosam Journalist, BBC London

    The top stories this morning:

    08:00: Rebecca Cafe BBC News

    Good morning. I'll be bringing you all the latest news, sport, travel and weather until 18:00.

    You can email me your comments about the stories of the day or send photos or tweet @BBCLondonNews.



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