Smartphone thefts up, parents pay

A Bell Canada customer whose teenage son was robbed at knifepoint for his cellphone — twice — is warning other parents how she was then stuck paying for cellphone contracts while unable to afford replacement phones.

Industry has no system to track stolen phones between providers

A Bell Canada customer whose teenage son was robbed at knifepoint for his cellphone — twice — is warning other parents how she was then stuck paying for cellphone contracts while unable to afford replacement phones.

"I honestly believed Bell would step up and do something for us, given the circumstances," said Cindy Monk-Fuller, who lives in the Beach area, in eastern Toronto.

Instead, Bell told her that 17-year-old Brendan Monk would have to pay $500 for a replacement — three times more than he paid for his Samsung Galaxy smartphone under the three-year contract.

"He worked hard all summer to buy that phone," his mother said. "He was robbed at knifepoint [in November] — on his way to school — so I just really expected Bell to say we'll replace the phone at the reduced price that you paid for it."

"Instead, their script is, 'I'm sorry this is not our responsibility. It doesn't matter how many services you have with us.'"

Stuck with contracts

Monk-Fuller said Bell also refused to let her out of the contract. So, in December, Brendan Monk started using his dad's cellphone — also tied to a Bell contract. A week later, he said, he was held up again.

"I was robbed again — mugged with a knife — and they took my phone again," Monk said. "It is obvious [the muggers] are just trying to make a quick profit."

Brendan's mother, Cindy Monk-Fuller, was stuck paying $80 a month for two Bell cellphone contracts after the phones were stolen. ((CBC))
Toronto police confirmed reports were filed both times. Monk-Fuller said she was then stuck paying Bell $80 a month — the minimum monthly contract fees — with no phones.

"It never occurred to me for one second that this sort of thing could happen once — let alone twice — and that we would be in this position," Monk-Fuller said.

She said she tried for weeks — unsuccessfully — to get Bell to give her a break on replacement phones.

Bell Canada declined a request for an interview, but following CBC News inquiries, it has now agreed to replace both stolen phones free of charge.

"I'm happy to say that Ms. Monk-Fuller accepted our most recent offer," Bell Canada spokesperson Jason Laszlo said in a written statement.

Toronto police spokeswoman Wendy Drummond said police are seeing a sharp increase in cellphone robberies, which she attributes to the proliferation of smartphones and Apple iPhones.

Robbers target teens with smartphones

"It is kids in their late teens that these thefts are occurring with," Drummond said. "Both the victims and suspects are in their late teens."

She advises parents to record their phone's serial number, so if it's stolen and recovered police can find the owner. Vancouver police said cellphone robberies are on the rise there, too — up 12 per cent over last year.

CBC News intern Gene Law was able to get a Bell phone that did not belong to him unlocked at an electronics store for $25, no questions asked. ((CBC))
There have also been recent media reports of cellphone robberies — at knifepoint — in various communities across Canada.

"Cellphones really do represent the criminal's ideal target in this day and age," said Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ont.

"As it becomes easier for consumers to move from one carrier to another, the appeal of cheap stolen phones that are easily migrated from one network to another only grows."

Submit your story ideas:

  • Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC TV, Radio and online.
  • We tell your stories and hold the powers-that-be accountable.
  • We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.

Submit your story ideas to Kathy Tomlinson at Go Public

The free advertising site Craigslist shows several listings in Vancouver and Toronto, from people advertising "lots of phones for sale," "unlocked" and "clean."

"It's staggeringly easy to steal a phone, rip out the SIM card, put in another one and sell it to some unsuspecting customer as new," Levy said.

CBC News did a test to see how easy or difficult it might be to set up a new account on a used, possibly stolen, phone.

Intern Gene Law took a Bell BlackBerry 9700, which belongs to a CBC colleague, into an electronics store. There he was able to get it "unlocked" from that account for $25, no questions asked.

"When I was in there, another person was asking for her iPhone to be unlocked," Law said. "She said it was her sister's."

No questions asked

He then took the BlackBerry into Fido, Telus and Chatr outlets to ask if he could set up a new account using that phone. None asked why he had someone else's BlackBerry. He said there appeared to be no system in place to check if it had been stolen.

"I was told as long as the phone is unlocked, it's no problem," Law said.

Following CBC News inquiries, Bell Canada agreed to replace the stolen cellphones for Cindy Monk-Fuller at no cost. ((CBC))
The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which speaks for the industry, confirmed providers have no system to check if an unlocked phone from a competitor has been stolen.

"Currently, that database is not in the works," said president Bernard Lord. "I can't tell you today that this is something that we are working on.

"Many providers would prefer that it would be easier for consumers to be able unlock their phones to be able to move from one subscriber to another. That's why the option of buying insurance is an important one — for those who want to protect themselves in case they are victims of theft."

He said all the major cellphone providers now offer theft insurance — at an extra cost to consumers each month. Bell Canada's plan is $7 per month, plus $150 deductible if a claim is made.

However, Monk-Fuller said she had never heard of such a thing.

"It wasn't offered to me, and it didn't occur to me," she said.

Tracking system may come

The company statement said Bell will not reactivate a Bell phone that a customer has reported stolen. It also indicated a system to track stolen phones between providers may be in the works.

"Bell is also in ongoing discussions with other Canadian wireless carriers to develop a process that will prevent lost or stolen unlocked devices from being activated on competing networks."

Bernard Lord, president of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, says no system is in place to track stolen phones between providers. ((CBC))
"Monk-Fuller said she thinks the industry should be doing more to educate and protect consumers now — beyond selling insurance at an extra cost.

"If people are having this many problems losing their cellphones — and their children are being robbed at knifepoint — I think maybe there should be some definite way of preventing these crimes and insuring customers are covered," she said.

Analyst Levy said providers give people the impression their phones are worth less than they really are, by offering deep discounts to customers — as incentives to sign contracts.

"The way most Canadians buy phones today is they buy them on subsidy," he said. "Carriers need to be much more up front about this with Canadian consumers."