Cellphone theft: It's not what you think

By 1991, crooks have figured out how to steal airtime from the cellular companies.

Hacking the chip inside a phone let thieves steal airtime from cellular providers

By 1991, crooks have figured out how to steal airtime from the cellular companies. 2:48

Like many trends, the scam started in California.

The chip inside a cellphone could be manipulated by thieves in 1991. (CBC Archives/Venture)

Enterprising thieves had figured out how to manipulate the computer chip inside a cellular telephone to fool the network into permitting unlimited airtime.

"Every cellular phone has an electronic fingerprint," explained reporter Fred Langan on the CBC-TV program Venture in 1991. "Make a call on a stolen cellular, and the computer will cut you off before you're connected."

But there was a way around that.

A matter of hacking

"Computer hackers in California have come up with a way to reprogram the chips to fool the computers," he continued.

The chip then told the Canadian cellular company's computer system that the phone was a travelling phone from a distant cell company.

It wasn't hard for a hacker with the right knowledge to steal airtime from the big cellular companies. (CBC Archives/Venture)

"So it approves the call," summed up Ian Angus, a telecommunications consultant.  

Scammers would then sell the airtime, and the hack had already cost Canadian cellular companies Bell and Cantel millions of dollars.

The sky's the limit

One Toronto gang stole $600,000 in airtime in just three months, said Langan.

"The sky would be the limit in terms of calling overseas," said Det. David Brownell, a Toronto police officer. "The going rate for some time was $40 an hour, which allowed you unlimited phone calls anywhere in the world."