Cellphone theft: another indicator of South Africa’s policing gaps

Partnerships with the private sector and a focus on intelligence-guided investigations are vital.

21 NOV 2023  

After a robbery in August, the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police arrested a suspect in possession of 153 stolen iPhones. Private security tracked the stolen phone to a flat, where a laptop used to unblock cellphones was also recovered. Police disrupted the activities of a syndicate responsible for hundreds of crimes, showing the value of public-private partnerships.

According to the South African Police Service (SAPS), an average of 189 cellphones are stolen daily in South Africa. Between April 2017 and March 2023, 412 998 mobiles were reported stolen to the SAPS. Police data suggests that only 29% of these were blacklisted with service providers. Gauteng province accounts for 29% of incidents, followed by Western Cape (26%), KwaZulu-Natal (20%) and Eastern Cape (7%).

Cellphones can be snatched from hands, homes, offices, bags and tables. They are also stolen during violent incidents such as armed robberies or muggings. Stolen phones are often wiped clean of data and sold to unsuspecting buyers.

In 2021 the South African Banking Risk Information Centre said phones were often stolen to access personal information and credentials, including victims’ ‘banking apps, delivery services and any other personal information that can be used for fraud, such as a copy of your ID, bank statements, proof of residence in addition to full access to your e-mail and SIM card.’

Victims are especially vulnerable when their passcodes are viewed or their phones are taken while unlocked

Victims are especially vulnerable when their private passcodes are viewed or their phones are taken while unlocked. However, even bio-security measures such as fingerprint readers or facial recognition can be bypassed. To get a victim’s pin code, phishing scams send SMSs to emergency contacts easily accessible on a locked phone.

Stolen mobiles often flow into the lucrative local second-hand phone market. Blacklisted devices or phones that cannot be unlocked usually end up in an overseas market for use or parts.

South Africa isn’t unique when it comes to high rates of cellphone theft. The London Metropolitan Police recorded 90 864 phone thefts in 2022, almost 250 a day, in London alone – more than the recorded average for South Africa. While phones were also stolen through pickpocketing or snatching from bags or tables, nearly 70% of robberies in London targeted cellphones, often at knifepoint.

On 17 November, the SAPS released crime statistics for July to September 2023. Combined with the first quarter data, this provides a good indication of whether the country’s violence levels are continuing their alarming upward trajectory.

The number of murders (the most reported and thus most reliable crime statistic), increased by 77% between April 2011 and March 2023, from 15 554 to 27 494 incidents – or 75 murders a day. Armed robbery increased by 45% since April 2011.

Police data suggests that only 29% of cellphones stolen between 2017 and 2023 were blacklisted

The decreases in property crime reported to and recorded by the SAPS for the same 12-year period are less publicised. These offences (burglaries of residential and other premises, theft of or out of motor vehicles) have decreased by 29% over the past 12 years.

But these statistics may not reflect actual numbers. Many victims, especially those without insurance, are unlikely to report repeat incidents. Reporting rates vary and are influenced by different factors, such as victims’ quest for justice or confidence in the police’s ability to retrieve their property or arrest perpetrators. But statistics do provide a snapshot of the nature and extent of the property crime problem over time.

According to Statistics South Africa’s 2022/23 Victims of Crime Survey, personal property theft is increasing. The projected number of incidents rose substantially by 52% between 2018/19 (one million) and 2022/23 (1.52 million). The number of victims (some experienced repeat victimisation) increased by 21% between 2018/19 (1.01 million) and 2022/23 (1.226 million). In 2022/23, only 33.5% of victims reported ‘all’ thefts to police, and 7.8% reported ‘some’. Nearly 60% of people don’t report at all.

Ahead of the festive season, vigilance is essential in public places. Phone theft victims must contact their banks immediately if using banking apps. Service providers can block SIM cards and the device through its IMEI number. Organisations like the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service also help victims of identity fraud.

Intelligence-guided investigations must be prioritised over police visibility and large numbers of arrests

Law enforcement should view phone theft as more than a crime to be reported for insurance purposes. Local police should work with victims to track phones where possible. Proper analysis of where, when and how thefts occur could identify the individuals and groups involved in organised crime networks who buy, sell or trade phones to domestic and international markets.

A focus by police on crimes which are potentially organised could make a significant dent in property and violent crime levels. The current mindset must shift from one that prioritises police visibility and large numbers of arrests, which have little impact, to one that appreciates intelligence-guided investigations.

Investigating organised crime groups requires technical expertise. Research published by the ENACT organised crime project shows that INTERPOL can support member countries ‘through coordinated, intelligence-led support to law enforcement using a range of police databases and operational support techniques.’

The SAPS needs a revamp from a sizeable, unwieldy organisation that cannot reduce crime, to a professional, tech-savvy law enforcement agency that can measurably improve public safety.

Lizette Lancaster, Manager, Crime Hub, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Freepik

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Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
Lizette Lancaster Crime Statistics


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