Hot on the trail of missing phones

Given how indispensable a mobile phone can be, losing one can be highly distressing. Thanks to Anantapur Police’s pioneering initiative — a WhatsApp chatbot to locate misplaced/ stolen cellphones — more than 5,000 handsets worth ₹8.25 crore have been retrieved in a little over seven months. The recovery process is far from easy, but the police’s efforts are winning hearts

Published - February 10, 2023 08:07 am IST - ANANTAPUR

Police personnel in the Cyber Cell of Anantapur District going through the complaints lodged over “CHAT BOT” for lost mobile phones.

Police personnel in the Cyber Cell of Anantapur District going through the complaints lodged over “CHAT BOT” for lost mobile phones. | Photo Credit: R.V.S. Prasad

For most of us, mobile phones are attached to our bodies almost like an extra limb. Ensconced in the palm of our hand, the rectangular device, be it worth ₹5,000 or above ₹1 lakh, has become an indispensable part of our daily lives today. Apart from facilitating easy communication, the mobile phone is an extension of oneself as it contains a vast repository of personal information such as passwords, phone numbers, and sensitive bank information. Pardon the hyperbole, but many would agree that losing a cell phone is akin to having an organ severed from the body.

However, if you do lose your phone, you can bank on Anantapur Police to retrieve it for you. Just type ‘HI’ or ‘HELP’ from another phone, send it across to the police, and presto! Your phone will be delivered home. This initiative has become a pioneering effort in the country. In fact, the National Police Academy has invited Anantapur SP Fakkeerappa Kaginelli to deliver a lecture on it.

Anantapur Police deploy technology and coordinate with multiple agencies to detect/ locate the lost/ stolen phones with an average turnaround time of seven days, with minimum of one day to a month in very few cases.

On June 26 last year, Mr.Fakkeerappa introduced a WhatsApp chatbot with the number 94407-96812 to help anyone having lost a phone anywhere in the country. 

The phone owner has to type a message ‘HELP’ over the chatbot and send it to the WhatsApp number. Immediately, a link for a Google Form is sent for the complainant to fill in details such as both IMEI numbers of the lost phone, its make, and their name and address.

Rise in complaints

On an average, the Anantapur police have been receiving 120 complaints a week, with the number touching almost 70 on some days. 

Cyber Cell Sub-inspector of Police G. Sudhakar Yadav told The Hindu that the real work begins with an official letter sent to all seven service providers in the country, providing the IMEI numbers to check if those were activated somewhere.

The Cyber Cell had received 13,400 complaints till January 31 and of them, IMEIs were activated for 6,803 phones. Of those, 5,077 phones valued at ₹8.25 crore were recovered. 

With the effort being discussed on social media, the number of daily complaints has climbed for the month of February — the police are receiving 60-70 complaints per day.

Retrieving a phone

Well-trained personnel with communication skills in multiple languages talk to the persons using the lost phone in different states, or districts of Andhra Pradesh to persuade them to return the device to Anantapur SP either in person or through courier. They are warned about legal action if they do not comply.

Within the district, the nearest police station collects the phone so that it can be routed to the district dedicated control room. Till then, no FIR is filed or formal complaint taken from the complainant to simplify the procedure, Mr.Fakkeerappa pointed out.

The police also booked cases against two mobile retailers in Anantapur, who were buying such stolen/lost phones and reselling them. “The lost phone users are sent bulk SMSes and contacted through voice call, advising them to return the handset as a complaint has been lodged with police over the chatbot. Majority of them have cooperated,” the SP said.

A ‘police notice’ is sent through WhatsApp to those who do not return it.

The recovered mobiles are handed over every Monday to the owner only after verification of original bill/ vouchers by obtaining their signatures and taking a photograph.

Doorstep delivery

While locals personally collect their phones from the SP’s office, those in other cities are sent their prized possession through Professional Couriers, free of cost.

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