Syrians evade phone taxes by changing numeric identifiers (IMEI)

A man checks smart mobile phones in a phone store in the Syrian capital - March 24, 2021 (AFP)

A man checks smart mobile phones in a phone store in the Syrian capital - March 24, 2021 (AFP)


Latakia – Linda Ali

The mobile phone of the 36-year-old Akram stopped working 20 days ago. “There was no way for it to be maintained or repaired,” the maintenance man in his hometown in the coastal governorate of Latakia told him.

The government employee, who lives in the Jableh countryside, was not surprised, as he had been using his phone since 2018, and therefore, it was natural for it to stop working after all this use.

Akram researched the available phone options, only to find that the cheapest mobile phone was priced at 2.5 million Syrian pounds (about $178) and had features that were not suitable for his online work.

The owner of the maintenance shop, Akram’s neighbor in the village, advised him to buy an uncustomed device and then change its numeric identifier IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) in exchange for a modest sum. He immediately agreed and bought a Tecno phone at a price of 1.3 million pounds, then paid 100,000 pounds in overage fees.

The young man realizes that what he did is against the law, but he has no other choice. He even borrowed the money from his father, who in turn borrowed the amount from one of his relatives, promising to return it when he sold the tobacco crop after about a month.

Some owners of smartphone maintenance shops in Latakia and all other governorates hack the device’s IMEI and place another device’s numeric identifiers on it so that it can be used with Syrian IDs, in a process punishable by law.

This process has spread widely since the imposition of a customs tax on mobile phones in 2020, which is considered very high, as it is often between 40% and 75% of the phone’s price.

Extremely confidential

In his shop that maintains and sells mobile devices in the countryside of Latakia, Asaad, 27, has been working in this profession for about two years, and he said that it helped him obtain a good income as a result of the increased demand for changing the IMEI as a result of the continuous increase in customs fees.

Asaad (pseudonym) explains the process, saying that he replaces the phone’s IMEI, the new identifier taken from a phone subjected to customs tax so that the new device becomes functional in Syria without the need to customs it.

The IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) is a unique number to identify GSM, WCDMA, and iDEN mobile phones, as well as some satellite phones.

This IMEI is like a “birth certificate” for each mobile phone and can be used to track the device, locate it, and recover it if it is lost or stolen.

The young man stated that his monthly income from what is known as “breaking the IMEI” sometimes reaches about 7 million pounds, and the fees for breaking it range between 100,000 and 800,000 pounds depending on the quality and modernity of the device, pointing out that some modern devices cannot have their IMEI broken immediately. It may take about five months after it is available on the market for the process to be successful.

Caution is a must

Asaad does not advertise his work publicly, nor does he accept hacking the IMEI of any passer-by’s phone, but there are specific ways to accept the request.

The young man said that the person must be trusted or must come from a trusted person as well because if the matter is discovered, the store owner will be subjected to legal prosecution and imprisonment.

In his answer to a question about how customers reach him, he said that they come through reliable means, through family, acquaintances, and relatives, noting that he deals with several trusted people to bring customers in exchange for giving them a certain amount of money.

Communications ministry warns

Last July, the Telecommunications and Postal Regulatory Authority, affiliated with the Ministry of Communications of the Syrian regime government, announced that it would send text messages to owners of mobile smartphones whose IMEI had been modified and give them a month to return the original ID, to avoid stopping the device on the Syrian cellular network and holding its owner legally accountable.

The Telecommunications Authority’s announcement stated that breaking the IMEI is a crime punishable by law, depriving the owner of the mobile phone of his right to demand its recovery if it is stolen and that using the phone with a stolen IMEI exposes its owner to being suspected of any crime committed by the owner of the new phone who uses his old phone’s IMEI.

After the announcement, messages began arriving to all devices whose IMEI had been broken (hacked), causing a real crisis for their owners to secure the money necessary to restore their phones.

Safaa, 21, a third-year civil engineering student at Tishreen University, was at risk of losing her phone, which she used to pay for her university studies, by working in design with a company for a small wage that was not enough for customs fees.

She said that the customs fees for her mobile phone were 2.1 million pounds, while the price of her mobile phone was about 2.5 million pounds, so she had no alternative but to give up her phone and work together.

Safaa learned from her colleague a trick that involves getting an old mobile phone that she never uses, then changing the IMEI through it, and later turning off the old device without ever turning it on, and the trick actually worked.

Asaad said that overcoming this issue was not difficult at all, and with the arrival of messages demanding the declaration and customs of phones, customers began to flock to him to apply the same process that Safaa applied.

He mentioned that some of them bought low-priced mobile phones to use instead of paying millions in customs, stressing at the same time that if the mobile phone were stolen, it would never be found.

Regarding the issue of losing a phone and the fear of not finding it, Safaa said sarcastically, “Never has a mobile phone been lost and found by the police. If you hear otherwise, I have never heard of anyone losing a mobile phone and the police returning it to them.”

Following the devastating earthquake last February 6, citizens demanded that the Telecommunications ministry cancel customs duties on mobile phones for at least one month to help those affected by the earthquake buy new mobile phones to replace those they lost along with their homes.

Local media circulated news that the Telecommunications ministry would cancel customs duties, but the ministry denied the matter.



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