Crooks ‘Clone’ Cellular Phones They Can Swipe Your Identification Number Off Airwaves, Then Use It On Their Own Telephones So You Get The Bill


No one with a cellular telephone is safe.

Thieves who can strip victims of their cellular identity lurk under bridges, at banks, along city sidewalks. Using electronic devices, they’ll pluck their cell-phone targets randomly, silently and literally out of thin air.

Unlike typical thefts, a victim may not know about the loss for weeks, until the cellular telephone bill arrives. At the bottom, a mind-numbing $12,000 balance may stare back, as it did to one victim in Miami last year.

“There’s nothing you can do to stop it,” said Todd Young, an investigator for a Seattle security agency. “If you have a (cellular) phone, you’re fair game.”

Spokane customers already have been victimized, and experts expect to see more of the high-tech crime.

Cellular theft began as a low-tech crime in 1984, when the first phones were introduced.

Crooks stole a telephone, made “free” calls until the number was disconnected and then hunted for another.

But brainy crooks in 1991 introduced a new method of thievery - a fairly simple computer-assisted process called “cloning.” The method has exploded in big cities across the country and stumped cellular carriers, who have yet to find a way to outwit the outlaws.

It works like this: Every cellular telephone has a phone number and an electronic serial number. The telephones emit the numbers about four times an hour as they check the airwaves for incoming calls.

Street dealers use scanners or other devices to swipe both numbers out of the air as they’re emitted. The busier the area, the better the chance of hitting good scans.

Once a crook locks onto the numbers, a desktop computer and a few wires are used to “burn” the scanned codes into another cellular phone’s memory. The process takes only a few minutes.

When the “cloned” telephone is used to make a call, it’s billed on the real cellular telephone’s account.

“Usually the carriers have no way of knowing when a phone’s been compromised until the legitimate owner gets that bill and says, ‘No way,”’ Young said. “It could be weeks before that happens and the phone is shut down.”

In the meantime, the number may be used for drug dealing, terrorism, prostitution or other crimes.

Last year, cellular theft cost American consumers $500 million, making the business of stealing air time a faster-growing market than the cellular industry itself.

Those fighting the federal crime call it an epidemic. The industry is shutting down tens of thousands of illegal numbers a month.

“It’s huge business here,” said Jim Bauer, a Secret Service agent in Los Angeles. “We have our plates full.”

While cellular swiping hasn’t fully landed in Spokane, police insist it’s on its way. If gang members and drug dealers in California do it, Spokane criminals will too, officials said.

“Most of our dealers are still working off of pagers,” said Detective Mark Grumbly, who works with the city’s drug unit. “But I’m sure the cell phone thing is coming.”

In fact, it’s already here. Or was.

Neil Goodman, a Secret Service agent in Spokane, said several cellular theft cases showed up two years ago when a group of L.A. dealers traveled to Canada. Little sign of it has been seen since.

“We’ve sort of kept our fingers crossed until now,” Goodman said. “But our luck will run out sooner or later, I’m sure.”

Some officials said the influx of California gang members is so great here it’s surprising more cellular theft hasn’t occurred.

“You may be a little slow, a little behind right now, but you’ll be dealing with it before long,” said Young, who investigates cellular fraud on the West Side.

In L.A., Bauer said illegal cellular dealers are quick and clever. Some offer their customers different “packages” for service.

One month of unlimited telephone calls may cost $35, or three months for $75. If the cellular companies shut the phone off before that, street dealers usually give their customers a new, swiped line for free.

In cities like Seattle, where stolen cellular service is relatively new, the monthly rate can start at $200 - not a bad deal if the buyer plans on making thousands of dollars worth of “free calls.”

Tom McClure, who works for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in Washington, D.C., said the demand for stolen air time is skyrocketing.

McClure said cellular carriers are shutting down about 40,000 cloned telephones a month.

The rate is impressive, but hardly puts a dent in the problem, he said.

“We’re shutting them down faster than we used to, but the bad guys are just making more and more (cloned) phones,” he said.

McClure said investigators have started working with police to fight the problem on the street level. One result has been more cellular theft arrests - 100 a month in L.A.

The crackdown also has pushed telephone dealers to outlying areas where cellular theft is not well-known or easily detected.

Crooks travel to smaller cities, scan airwaves for more code numbers, then return home to sell them. Since the numbers being sold are from different areas, it takes longer for the carrier to find out.

A security method that may end cloning is on the way, though. Investigators said a radio frequency “fingerprint” for every cellular phone may be developed soon.

Then, crooks would not only have to swipe the phone’s numbers from the airwaves, but precisely match its radio frequency.

“It’s a virtual unbreakable solution,” investigator Young said. “You can’t duplicate the (fingerprint).”

The addition would be costly for carriers, though. And some industry experts think the crooks eventually will find a way around it, as they have around every other security device so far.

Lex Wilkinson, president of a security company in Pennsylvania, said he’ll always have a job investigating communications theft.

“The manufacturers told us 10 years ago that (cloning) couldn’t happen, that nothing could be changed or duplicated with cellular phones,” Wilkinson said. “But guess what? Everything can be changed. Everything can be duplicated. Nothing is safe.”

xxxx Are you a victim? “Cloning” thefts Here are some warning signs that your cellular phone has been cloned: You start receiving phone calls from strangers. Callers to your number say they’ve reached someone else on your number. If your phone is cloned and someone tries to call you, both telephones will ring. You have difficulty getting a dial tone to make a phone call. When your telephone’s been cloned, the thief may be making hundreds of calls and you may keep getting a “quick busy” signal. Unauthorized calls show up on your bill. What should you do? Call your cellular carrier and report the problems right away. How to prevent other types of theft Treat your cell phone like a credit card. Don’t leave it in your car, lend it to anyone or set it out in public. Ask your cellular company for a personal identification number for your phone. The number must be dialed before you can make a call. Get a cellular phone with a locking feature. Many phones can be locked by punching in a four-digit code, which would prevent others from dialing out.

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