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My phone’s been blacklisted

Well, it hasn’t really – not for a while anyway – but it’ll do as a title.

The massive problem of mobile phone handsets being stolen led in 2002 to a marvellous bit of innovation. If a phone was stolen, its unique reference number – the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) – could be logged on a central database of blacklisted numbers, and it wouldn’t work any more. Not on any UK service, anyway, regardless of what SIM card you put in it.

Now, with an idea this brilliant in its simplicity there are bound to be a few drawbacks. (It’s also a really good illustration of problems that come up in any distributed system built around a central point, with a large number of players and variables involved.)

I haven’t managed to find out much in the way of fact about this mysterious IMEI database. I have established that it is known as the Central Equipment Identity Register (how Orwellian is that?) and that the Global System for Mobiles Association (GSMA) handles requests from mobile network operators (MNOs) to join the membership of those able to update it. Whether there is any more regulation relating to it than that is unclear. [Wikipedia tells me there are certain weaknesses in the non-uniqueness of IMEI numbers across handsets, and that handsets can be reprogrammed with a new IMEI number with enough effort. But that’s incidental to the argument of this post.]

My main point is that from a process perspective, it doesn’t actually do the job it’s intended to. This is why.

One day my phone stopped working. I took it into the shop. “It’s not the SIM”, they said – “your handset’s been blacklisted. You have a SIM-only contract with us, nothing we can do. Our responsibilities stop there. Where did you get the handset?”

I explained that I’d bought it on eBay about 9 months before (from a very genteel lady in Dorking who didn’t want it as an upgrade). “You’ll need to find her, and get a receipt.” And then what? They looked blank. And what if I can’t? Blanker. “Nothing we can do”. Hmm, I thought.

Obviously, there was no chance of finding the seller – I had absolutely no idea who or where she was, and anyway, why should I? This was a mistake. Could the wrong IMEI have been put on the blacklist by mistake? “Yes.”

I made a big fuss. I tried to track down a regulator. I wrote to Ofcom. I did all the usual things that a public service process obsessive does. Nothing. Silence everywhere. I carried on making increasing levels of fuss to Vodafone – my only hope: with membership of the GSMA club and able to get their digits on the database. Finally, after much griping, emailing and phoning, they said “it’ll work now.” And it did. “It was a mistake,” they said. “Happens quite a lot.”

Which means that making a big enough fuss, being articulate and invoking stories of nice grey-haired ladies in Dorking will get your phone unlocked. Stolen or not. By any MNO you pick on to force the unlocking.

Which seems like a complete load of bollocks.

This is a hugely powerful system, capable of causing immense inconvenience due to a finger-slip by any of hundreds of people, scattered widely. It’s designed to provide a serious barrier to theft, yet it can be unpicked with a sustained bout of whinging and some smartly written emails.

It reminded me of some of the concepts of centralised identity management, which I’ve written about before. As soon as a centralised system becomes powerful enough to be any use, almost by definition it becomes unusable when exposed to many real world conditions. The blocking process might have been quite effective when almost all handsets came via your MNO, and you didn’t swap networks much. But those days are long gone.

Gary Gale reported a similar experience to this today, triggering thoughts that it wasn’t just me, and provoking me to write this post. Thanks Gary. Add any comments you like.

I’m not a mobile industry expert. If any of you are, and I’ve made a string of howlers above, I’m sure you’ll let me know. Is something missing here in terms of an independent point of contact to appeal mistakes like this? Who would run it? Who would pay? We can certainly forget a “well, government should just do it” solution in the current climate.

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35 Responses

  1. Sarah says:

    Ah c’mon Paul. If I’m understanding you right, your initial complaint was that no one could help you, and your subsequent complaint was that someone helped you.

    Current system is not perfect, agreed. But why would it being centrally kept prevent typos?

    How about when you buy something you make sure you get all the paperwork? How about caveat emptor?

  2. Paul Clarke says:

    Yeah, it’s definitely a bit moany ;)

    But there’s something to moan about if a ‘secure’ system suddenly falls apart like a cheap suit, or if some customers are able to get ‘help’ through invoking certain words or behaviours. If I hadn’t been a white, middle-aged professional sort, would I have got the same help? What if I’d looked (in the eyes of the company) like a phone thief? It’s these inconsistencies and weaknesses that trouble me.

    And yes, I’m all for personal responsibility on the paperwork. I won’t make that mistake again. But people do legitimately buy phones that have no paperwork. Should they not? I guess it’s a calculated risk; however the odds seem a little stacked against them due to this rather odd (and flawed) blocking system.

  3. […] My phone’s been blacklisted – honestlyreal As soon as a centralised system becomes powerful enough to be any use, almost by definition it becomes unusable when exposed to many real world conditions. The blocking process might have been quite effective when almost all handsets came via your MNO, and you didn’t swap networks much. But those days are long gone. […]

  4. That’s why I’m wary of buying things on e-Bay myself, but setting that aside…
    My interest in this story was piqued by lack of uniqueness in the IMEI numbers. The problems of unique identifiers do concern me at times. I sometimes need to create systems of identifiers for analogue or digital objects, therefore I think about what happens when the context of the identifier shifts eg when a small museum uses its own accession numbers to identify images of objects and when they out them on the Web, they find that they are the same as another museum’s. We found out recently that a Sainsbury’s re-usable bag has the same barcode as an item of clothing in M&S.

    If I were a mobile phone company, I’d want to get together with other mobile phone companies and insurance companies to:
    1) devise a unique mobile devices identifier system
    2) think of a snappier, public-friendly name for the database
    3) create a public-friendly database
    4) charge public to register a phone on the database but offer them incentive so that when they have they can get money off insuring the handset, or free calls/texts/data for a set period
    5) market it so people know about it, know advantages
    6) employ staff tough enough to withstand the Awkward Squad’s senior members, such as Mr Clarke ;-)

  5. Wardy277 says:

    I am in a similar situation. After 6 months of working fine it suddenly stopped making or receiving calls or sms.

    I bought my phone online from a shop selling could contracts for many operators.

    It got blacklisted and after many back and forth calls to the shop and the operator, eventually I was told another separate company blacklisted it and neither of them can remove it. Kind of a huge flaw in the system.

    Hopefully this company will remove the blacklist if the operator asks. But they don’t have to. They can just say no and that’s it. Phone is useless!

    Fingers crossed this gets sorted soon

  6. Michael says:

    Wardy277. Let me guess, your phone is either on the t-mobile or Orange networks?

    I’ve just encountered a similar problem with a Motorola Defy bought on eBay in April 2010. It worked fine for about six months, then I upgraded and left it on the shelf for a couple of months. Over Christmas, I decided to pass it on to my girlfriend, only to discover that it had apparently become blacklisted!

    The following thread mentions that this is a problem due to the merging of the Orange and t-mobile networks:

    http://forums.moneysavingexpert.com/showthread.php?t=3677593

    I’ve spoken to Orange and couldn’t get them to do anything about it though they confirmed it is now blacklisted. Next step t-mobile. Hopefully, they will be able to help as my girlfriend’s SIM is a t-mobile one and the phone was originally a t-mobile device before I unlocked it.

    I’m sure it isn’t stolen otherwise it wouldn’t have worked for 6 months without a problem! If a phone is stolen, I’m pretty sure that there won’t be a delay of 8 months before reporting it!

    I’ve also tried to contact the eBay seller but no reply as yet.

  7. Michael says:

    Edit above – sorry, bought the Defy on eBay in April 2011!

    I’m not used to 2012 being this year and not next year just yet!

  8. shaun says:

    Just happened to me i have had a Nokia 6310 for 4 years, (bought off E bay)it is Orange But unlocked, I have always had it with Virgin, it has suddenly stopped working and Orange cannot and will not do anything as they say the person who requested it to be blacklisted had all the correct security??

    Seems odd that it took them 4 years??

    I now have a phone which is useless.

  9. ellen says:

    omg my e bay bought t mobil phone worked 3 months before they black listed it the seller claims it was a new phone how do i fight this.

  10. Paul says:

    I don’t know of any magic route other than persistence and making a BIG noise

  11. scott says:

    Hi Paul, I’m kinda glad I’m not the only one !
    You talk about persistence and making a big noise, but who to? the GSMA ?

  12. prclarke says:

    @Scott – to anyone (i.e. a mobile phone company) who has updating privileges to the blacklist. Be enough of a pain, hang out in the shop all day, and maybe they’ll cave in and unblock. Was the only way I managed it.

  13. ali1234 says:

    I have a tiny piece of information to add here. I had a phone which worked fine on t-mobile for ages. When they merged with orange it would work on t-mobile access points but immediately stop working if it ever tried to join an orange access point, and would even refuse to connect manually to t-mobile until rebooted. Now they’ve merged into EE it doesn’t work at all. They tell me the phone is blacklisted. Now, if it worked on t-mobile but didn’t work on orange, then the database clearly isn’t centralized…

  14. Isha says:

    Hello,

    Paul I have a similar problem. My phone is blacklisted after using it for 3 weeks. My service provider is Vodafone and they claim it has been blacklisted by another network and they cannot do anything. The ebay seller I got the phone is not being too helpful.
    I am quite distressed and any help or advice from you will be much appreciated.

  15. Paul says:

    Hi Isha

    This is the position I found myself in – all I could do was maintain to the (Vodafone) shop that it wasn’t stolen, and eventually they unblocked it. It may help your cause if you can have some evidence of your purchase with you – an eBay confirmation email, perhaps?

    Good luck!

  16. Jill says:

    I have just purchased an iphone from ebay. It works fine but I have visions of this happening to me. Is there any thing you suggest that I do to protect myself in future? Thanks.

  17. Paul says:

    The only thing I can suggest is that you keep as much documentation as you can relating to the sale. Then if anything does go wrong you can do your best to show you bought in good faith, and hopefully if the seller is legitimate then any mistaken blacklisting can be rectified. But of course if it was stolen, then that won’t help you. Risky business, it would seem…

  18. Jill says:

    Yes, risky as I am discovering. I have called the phone’s provider (AT&T) and according to them the phone is in good standing. I was more concerned that the phone was under contract with AT&T, that the seller was trying to get out of paying their bill and that AT&T would then blacklist the phone until they got their money. But now I am being told that the blacklist goes with the SIM card. Any thoughts on that?

  19. Paul says:

    In the UK (where I am) the intention of the block is to disable the handset, via its unique IMEI number, regardless of what SIM is put in.

  20. Ian says:

    I am currently in argument over blacklisted phone. I bought from buymobilephones.net, a supposedly reputable company on a three contract september 2012, however no coverage in my area so useless, bmp cancelled three contract and set me up on orange, however 2 weeks ago three blacklisted my phone, orange asked me to provide proof of purchase which I got from bmp and they passed this on to Blacklist uk, while telling me the phone would be unlocked immediatly once I could prove the phone was legitimate. However, two weeks later three are still refusing to unlock phone, the phone has been returned to dealer at their request and they are refusing to exchange until three admit mistake was theirs.Three are blaming dealer and had an email from dealer saying the were going to replace my handset but they will not do so. Therefore I now have no phone but I am still liable to pay Orange for the next 18 months. Any advice from anywhere as to a way to cancel contract for something I can not use?

  21. David says:

    Hi,
    This is my experience I just got with Virgin Mobile inthe UK.

    I had lost my SIM card (only the SIM) and I requested a duplicate. The operator said to me that for more security she would block my previous SIM so that no one would be able to use it. Obviously I said “That’s fine!”.

    When I received the duplicate and I activated it,I realised it did not work at all! I could not register into any network.

    I called customer services again, and again, and again… and every one told me a different thing. When someone called to my phone I got the message “Calls are currently not conected to this number”. Finaly I requested yet another duplicate. And the same issues again. And called customer services again. No one had a clue.

    I had surfed the web and fountd that the issue could be that my number was blacklisted.. But they did nto pay attention to this.

    I ended up getting a new number, new SIM, new contract.. But still did nto work. Then I put my new SIM on a friends handset and it worked..

    I called AGAIN to virgin. And I said that my phone was blaclisted. I was lucky to talk to with the first lady who had created the issue and she un-blacklisted my phone.

    Conclusion: 1.- My old number was blacklisted
    2.- BUT also my phome was blaclisted!!

    So I was screwed. Today, I finally sorted it. I have ended up with 2 numbers and 2 SIMs and 2 contracts..
    Next batle is to sort this out but Iam scared what can happen then!!

  22. Ash says:

    Can any network provider unblacklist the phone or is it only the network provider who blacklisted the phone that can do it?

  23. prclarke says:

    I don’t know. From what I’ve seen I’d guess the blacklist administration is pretty open – with numerous parties able to add or remove from it. That’s why I wrote the post originally – unimpressed with a system that permits unwarranted customer inconvenience, but is also not very robust in the face of determined challenge.

  24. Katie says:

    I am currently having a similar battle, bought my phone sim-free in May, put in my O2 sim, used it no problems, went abroad, came back and it isn’t working now. O2 tell me that they can see that Vodafone have blacklisted my handset. Carphone Warehouse, where I got the phone from can see the same information. Vodafone deny any knowledge of this or the ability to blacklist my handset as I do not have (and will never have) a vodafone account. Have been given another number that apparently is for dealer support, but have been on hold for an hour now, so not hopeful. But Carphone Warehouse have been brilliant, they were in a conference call with Vodafone and me to try and resolve this, and the poor girl was shouted at by Vodafone and told she was wasting his time! Unbelievable. She said if they end up doing nothing then they will give me a new handset, but all I want is for my phone to work normally without the hassle of swapping handsets again. And the strange thing is that although the handset was blacklisted on 11th July, I didn’t have a problem until I returned to the UK on 19th August. Something dodgy is certainly going on, but Vodafone are being very good at playing at the avoidance game…

  25. Stella says:

    I have bought a new brand phone from the Orange site (Now EE) using my phone fund. My Sim card was activated but for a week I could not make or receive calls. The Orange shop tested my SIM card in another phone, it worked, did a soft reset on my new one, it still did not work so told me the phone was faulty and I had to return it and get a new handset…what a nuisance since I bought it through the internet! so I called again Customer Service and they did a few checks, and finally concluded I had been sold a new phone which was blacklisted by mistake!!! I am worried now this is not the end of my problems and that it might get blacklisted again…?

  26. Lee says:

    Hi, I’m after some help please. Seems I’m in a similar situation to others on this site. After buying a phone off someone on ebay 2 months ago, it stopped working this weekend: reason it’s been blacklisted. Vodafone my operator are telling me it’s been blocked by another network and so they can’t remove it. This is as much as I can get out of them. I’ve tried the ebay and paypal route but they can’t help (due to a case already having been opened as part of the original txn and being out of paypals 45 day cover period).

    My question is though, has someone been able to get vodafone to remove their phone from the blacklist where vodafone didn’t original raise it? providing all proof of purchase etc of course.

    Any help /advice appreciated! Thanks!

  27. Jenny Farrell says:

    Much like Ian I bought a Galaxy S3 on O2 contract on 30 November 2013 via buymobiles.net and 2 weeks later my phone stopped working. My new network provider O2 are saying that they can see that TMobile have blacklisted my phone so it needs taking up with them. I contacted TMobile (never been a customer of theirs) and am still waiting on a response from their fraud dept. O2 reckon TMobile might have input a wrong digit whilst entering an imei number into the blacklist system. Im currently refusing to pay for any service as this is not a customer issue. O2 can claim the money from TMobile or take me to court!

  28. monique says:

    I lost my SIM card on holiday abroad in August 2012 so on returning I asked for a replacement SIM card from Virgin. Then I sent the phone a HTC still under warranty for repair to Virgin in April 2013 after if developed a technical fault for them to tell me it was beyond repair so they issued me with the same HTC but reconditioned. The same fault happened again so they sent me another reconditioned HTC phone until this happened a third time so I bought a new LG phone on a different network and contract. A few days ago I found the HTC out for my sister to use only to realize that no SIM card works in this phone at all so I called Virgin to ask them if it had been blacklisted they told me no so I did some research online and found a site called ‘Check Mend’ which is a national database that can check for a small fee if your phone is legitimate. The report came back saying it is currently blacklisted!!So I get back onto Virgin for them to tell me yes it is blacklisted but they cant do anything because it was sent to Virgin for repair in April 2013 under a different account to mine. I said that was not possible as I have the phone. Virgin said they will investigate but on reflection I wonder whether the reconditioned HTC I received was someone elses faulty one which had been sent for repair, then had theirs replaced resulting in me getting THAT phone in a RECONDITIONED state!! Sounds a bit far fetched but could it be possible that the previous owner reported it lost or stolen before Virgin transfered the IMEI details over to me as the new owner Any suggestions?????

  29. Kim says:

    Hi I brought a t mobile 5s of eBay it arrived sealed put a sim in and no one can phone me when I phone t mobile they could not understand then the girl told me it was blacklisted but when I asked for her name she checked the ime number again and said it was not then passed me on to someone eles and he said it was 100% blacklisted but I have put the ime number into loads of site that check ime number and none are saying its blacklisted has anyone got any advice pls

  30. Lee says:

    I’ve been in exactly the same boat as others on here… Unlocked Phone bought on eBay, worked fine on my Vodafone contract for 2 months, then got told it was blacklisted. Here’s what I found out after a lot of pain and frustration….

    The database is managed by GSM.
    They provide different levels of access to it, which they charge for.
    Top level allows legal authorities such as police access
    Next leVel is for signed up organisations, such as mobile networks.
    Not just anyone can join, you have to meet exacting criteria,such as having industry sponsors.
    As such, generally speaking only mobile networks can add and remove entries to the database.
    All companies with read access, levels 1 and 2, can read, and therefore tell you if the emie number is on the database. This is why companies such as checkmend can do the reports they do. Level 2 access and below though doesn’t allow them to see who raised it.
    This is the important piece therefore, because then only the operator who added the entry IE who blacklisted the phone, can see they raised it and thus unblock it.

    Once I realised this, I purchased pay as you go Sims from virgin, T-Mobile and orange, and called as a customer telling them they’d blocked my phone. Hey presto, turns out it was orange.. They never told me why. I provided proof of purchase and they unblocked me. Im working fine again now on my Vodafone contract.

    One last point worth noting, as I was told by most networks that they verify the phone has been registered on their network before blacklisting it. This is part of their checks and measures to prevent anyone with just access to the imei calling and making an insurance claim!

    Hope this helps!

  31. Dawn says:

    I am having the same problem with Vodafone. Galaxy s3 bought on Amazon as new. Had it on Vodafone payg for 13 months ,then moved to Talktalk. Vodafone have suddenly blacklisted it saying it was on a contract. What after 13 months.

  32. pat cox says:

    How about this.
    I purchased two brand new mobile phones from a police lost property sale with separate Vodaphone sims.
    I fitted a new sim in one and it did not work. Took the phones to Vodaphone shop who scanned both and informed me both were blacklisted.
    I contacted Vodaphone and provided proof of purchase via the auction house and police.
    No help from anyone except bin the phones as they are useless and they would not remove the blacklist.
    Legally the phones are now my property and even if the original owner was made aware that I had purchased the phones, he would have no right of return.
    I am now in the position of legally owning two phones that no one will un-blacklist.

  33. Cindy says:

    Well I purchased a replacement phone for my daughter on ebay four months ago (Galaxy S3) – new in box. We had no issues until yesterday when she said her phone wasn’t working. We have Virgin Mobile, so my husband ending up calling customer service where they told him her phone was blacklisted and that we would need to contact the fraud department. So I sent them an email yesterday evening (fraudalerts@virginmobileusa.com) thinking great this is going to be a nightmare. I sent a copy of the email showing my purchase of the phone and to my surprise this morning I received this response:
    Thank you for that info on the seller. I have restored your account.

    Please be advised that there is a systemic process that will render the account suspended again. When this happens you can email us directly and we will reinstate the account immediately. The individual who sold you the handset did so knowing this was going to happen. If there is any other information you can provide that would further help us, please feel free to forward it along. I thank you for your patience and cooperation.

    Paul

    Virgin Mobile USA

    So I just wanted to say there is hope. Wish you all luck.

  34. Janice says:

    I have a contract with Virgin Mobile which came with a Blackberry. I later decided to purchase a Samsung Galaxy S4 keeping the sim. Unfortunately I
    lost my phone last week and reported this to Virgin who barred the phone. Luckily it was found later that day and with relief contacted Virgin who re-activated the phone. Six days later I was unable to make or receive calls. I visited a Virgin store who were able to tell me that the phone was blacklisted and were unable to re-instate this on my behalf as the phone was not contracted or purchased from them. From the IMEI number it shows the phone was originally purchased from T Mobile (By my seller) and they are the only people who can unblock. Who do I contact at T Mobile and will they be helpful. I have an invoice from seller, an expensive phone that is useless.

  35. Paul says:

    Via email: a nice hack in response –

    Buy a t mobile sim pay as you go for a fiver, then call t mobile as a customer telling them it’s your phone but they have it blacklisted. They should then unblock it for you, though may have to provide proof of purchase from the original owner.

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