We know that mobile phone smuggling has never stopped in Pakistan and unlocked phones and phones without paying taxes have been entering into the country for years. And despite the measures from the government, criminals find a way to dodge the authorities.
But how a phone gets unlocked in the US and Europe at first?
In one of the major cases, two Pakistani citizens allegedly bribed the staff of a US telecom giant AT&T to unlock millions of phones and injected malware into telco’s network for many years.
AT&T provides cellular phones along with its telecom services to customers on upfront or on installment/lease plan which makes it easier for the customers to get hold of expensive high-end phones such as iPhones on small monthly installments.
Through internal security tools, these phones are locked on AT&T’s network so they can not be used elsewhere as long as the installment plan continues.
If somehow, a person breaches the internal security system and get a phone unlocked before the end of the contract period, AT&T bears the loss of revenue stream it was meant to receive along with the outstanding cost of the phone. The customer can later get away with the unlocked phone to any other telecom network or even sell the phone into the market for half the price.
This is what 34 years old Muhammad Fahd and Ghulam Jiwani did between April 2012 and September 2017 by bribing AT&T staff members and having them unlocked the phones. Not only Fahd paid them to unlock the phones, out of the way, but also provided them to plant malware on AT&T’s internal computer network for gathering confidential data on how the cellular operator’s computer network and software applications functioned.
Fahd and Jiwani would provide the list of IMEI numbers of the phones to the staff members who would unlock the phones using their respective company logins.
The accused also handed over additional malware and hardware to his accomplices at AT&T (employees) to install it for bulk unlocking the phones using the remote server Fahd owned.
Fahd and his partners in crime paid more than $ 1,000,000 ($ 1 mn) to different employees of AT&T during this period for unlocking more than 2,000,000 (2mn) phones.
When the company terminated some of his co-conspirators at AT&T, Fahd used other insiders to continue carrying out the hacking and unlocking.
The accused paid the employees either in cash or through business accounts of multiple shell companies he opened for this work. He also used Western Union for several payments.
Many a time, the AT&T employees traveled to Dubai for receiving the payments.
“This defendant thought he could safely run his bribery and hacking scheme from overseas, making millions of dollars while he induced young workers to choose greed over ethical conduct,” said U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran. “Now he will be held accountable for the fraud and the lives he has derailed.”
Fahd, also known as Frank Zhang, was arrested in Hong Kong on February 4, 2018, and extradited to the US on August 2, 2019, is facing a trial in the US. He is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to violate the Travel Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The crimes charged are punishable for up to 20 years in prison.