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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 May 2006, 07:44 GMT 08:44 UK
Following Ghana's phone thieves
Mobile phone
Many people are trying to get their hand on valuable phones
Mobile phones stolen in Europe are turning up in Ghana in what is proving to be a massively lucrative criminal business - and then being stolen again by local thieves once they are purchased.

A complex network has developed shipping the phones out of British ports and to West Africa.

But once they arrive in the country - and in particularly the capital Accra - they are often re-stolen a number of times as a phone-centred crime wave sweeps the city.

"We identified that mobile phones which had been reported as stolen by customers in the UK - and were therefore blocked by the networks - were being exported throughout the world for resale and use in other countries, and this obviously included Ghana," Superintendent Eddie Thompson, of the world's only dedicated mobile phone crime unit, based in London, told BBC World Service's Global Perspective programme.

One ongoing inquiry is of an individual exporting through ports, and group exporting the phones through a freight terminal, exporting "quite high volumes of phones, stolen in the UK, out to Ghana."

Moto snatches

Many of the stolen phones end up in Accra's Tiptoe Lane, known for its second-hand markets and traders of goods of questionable origin.

Ademan, one of the traders, explained that he receives supplies from Finland, and brand new phones from Dubai. On a good day he will sell four phones, on a bad day none.

The phones end up in the markets of West Africa, where they are sold on
He said, however, that he does not accept phones to sell unless they are accompanied by a matching charger.

But another trader, Alasan, said that he simply sells phones he is given by his brother, who says they come from Italy.

"I can't know whether they are stolen - I can't know that," he admitted.

But the story of the stolen phone does not end there.

The surge in mobile phone ownership in the country in recent years - some of which has been driven by the availability of stolen European phones - has led to a wave of crime focused solely on snatching the phones from their owners.

Gangs of young boys, usually aged 14-16, ride around the city on "motos" - small motorcycles - targeting people who have handsets in plain sight.

They are often able to snatch them swiftly, and at force, before driving off.

"The bike comes, they go behind the car - the driver didn't even see they were coming - and then they got to the passenger side and snatched the phone with some force," explained one victim.

"Then they sped off, and they were gone.

It came to a level where the police needed to act - and we have acted
Deputy director of police public affairs Kwesi Ofori
"It happens a lot - they just snatch your phone, and they are gone."

A former gang leader, Razak, told Global Perspective how easy he had found it to steal the phones.

And if the handset was not clearly visible, they would simply target people's bags which they would usually keep the phone in.

"I was always looking for phones, every time I stepped outside," he said..

"Phones are easier than wallets - and often wallets don't have anything in anyway."

He explained that the reason his gang had stolen was because "we didn't have any education, and our family had no money - nothing."

"But I saw it was a bad life," he added.

This relatively new crime has been working its way up the police priority list in the country.

"It came to a level where the police needed to act - and we have acted," said Accra's deputy director of police public affairs, Kwesi Ofori.

"We have put a lot of resources in. In 2004, there were 209 reported cases - in 2005, 417.

"Our anti-armed robbery unit has taken it very seriously, and has arrested a lot of violent gang members for phone snatching.

"We have reduced phone robbery to a level which is encouraging."

Changing attitudes

Philip Boyfi, one of Ghana's biggest mobile phone retailers, explained that until recently many Ghanaians were not at all careful about concealing their phones.

"They always want to show off the mobile phone they have got," he said.

"All my customers want to be able to scream at the top of their voice that they are on cellphones."

However, following a massive push by the police to educate people of the dangers of using their phone in the street, attitudes are changing.

"You hear of people being threatened at gunpoint for their phone, hit, stabbed with knives," said Fiona Entman, one Accra citizen who lives not far from Tiptoe Lane.

"Now, it is a bit on the low side. Some months ago it was terrible and everyone was scared - some people did not even take their phones to the office, they just left it at home.

"There was a lot of publication on safety with your mobile phone. People are now more alert, and even the people who commit such crimes are more alert, because the police are around."

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