Make it illegal to tamper with cellphone serial numbers, says New Democrat

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OTTAWA - The federal New Democrats are urging the federal government to crack down on cellphone thefts by supporting a private member's bill that would make it illegal to tamper with a cellphone's serial number.

NDP MP Mike Sullivan tabled legislation Tuesday that he said would, if passed, cripple the underground trade in stolen cellphones by making it easier for police and owners to track their whereabouts.

Sullivan's bill is a follow up to his motion last year calling for a national database to track stolen phones, a measure currently being developed by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

He said the bill would also curb an outbreak of phone-related muggings in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada, which he called a crime of opportunity.

"The kids in my riding were being serially targeted... because criminals knew they were carrying around $600 pieces of equipment in their pockets," Sullivan told a news conference.

The CWTA said smartphones cost between $600 to $700 and are sometimes resold through Internet sites like Kijiji, although the numbers of phones reported lost or stolen across the country has been on the decline.

Some 69,210 phones were reported stolen in 2012, down from 94,542 in 2011 and more than 100,000 thefts reported in 2010. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, however, says violence in such thefts is on the increase in some areas.

In downtown Montreal, for instance, the use of violence in cellphone robberies increased by 71 per cent, the association said. In Vancouver, robberies increased 37 per cent from 2010 to 2011, all of them violent.

The numbers aren't what's important, said Sullivan. "Whether it's up or down doesn't matter, it's a huge problem."

Stolen cellphones are deactivated by the service provider, but they can easily be reactivated elsewhere. That will change with the forthcoming database, which is due in September, said CWTA spokesman Marc Choma.

The database won't be able to detect cellphones with changed serial numbers or prevent them from accessing networks, he added. Making such tampering illegal would "dry up the black market for cellphones."

Neither the database nor the NDP's bill would help Canadians recover lost or stolen devices, Choma said, but would serve solely as a deterrent to would-be thieves.

Organizations: Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, Sullivan's, Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police NDP

Geographic location: OTTAWA, Toronto, Canada Montreal Vancouver

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