Is it illegal to change an IMEI number of a cell phone used ONLY in the USA?

10521 views
Skip to first unread message

Harold Lathom

unread,
Jan 13, 2011, 11:58:16 PM1/13/11
to
Is it legal to change an IMEI number for a cell phone wholly owned and
operated in the United States?

I realize it's illegal to change an IMEI of a cell phone in the UK and
other countries that perform blacklisting but the United States does not
use that method.

There are obviously good reasons for changing the IMEI number of a
cellphone just as there are obvious good reasons for periodically
changing your MAC address of your PC and for licking the envelope when
you mail a letter to your mother and for pulling your curtains closed
when you are at home in your bedroom.

The question is, if it's at all illegal to change an IMEI number for a
cellphone wholly purchased, used, and operated within the United States,
would be WHERE is that law located (I don't think it exists).

Riyadh AlYamama

unread,
Jan 23, 2011, 11:44:04 AM1/23/11
to
On Jan 13, 9:58 pm, Harold Lathom <75537.1...@compuserve.com> wrote:
> There are obviously good reasons for changing the IMEI number of a cellphone ......

Really? Name 2 that are legitimate:

I work in the field and can't think of a reason to do so except for
sponging off someone else's account, or masking a stolen phone.
This is virtual identical to changing the VIN number on a vehicle.

I'm a techy not a lawyer, sooner or later you'll get a call as to what
you're doing and why, either from the service provider, or a guy with
a badge. Without telling how, there are other ways providers and
authorities can quickly spot such changes. Bad move unless you can
show a real legitimate reason.

I'd really like to know what you think are good reasons to do this.

Harold Lathom

unread,
Jan 26, 2011, 9:58:09 PM1/26/11
to
On Sun, 23 Jan 2011 08:44:04 -0800, Riyadh AlYamama wrote:
> This is virtual identical to changing the VIN number on a vehicle.

You are wholly incorrect sir! Both legally and technically.

This is entirely off topic to address your errant technical concerns so
I'll weave in your errant legal concerns as I understand them ... but I
do ask that technically astute LAWYERS please stand up.

To show your red herring for what it is, let's cover the legal topic of
the vehicle VIN because you brought it up and your ignorant assumptions
may dissuade legitimate answers to the question at hand.

BTW, every lawyer on the planet knows what a spurious argument is. That
is what your attempt at associating with the VIN results in, since the
IMEI is absolutely nothing like a VIN - in fact - nothing could be more
different.

Here's why ...

I assume you realize the unique VIN of a vehicle is used for vehicle
registration & taxation purposes. The numerical system is governed by
federal law, and the VIN is issued by the manufacturers based on those
federal laws. A key point is that your vehicle registration is void if
you change the VIN of the vehicle that a registration documents, whether
by (physically) moving the "registration card" into another vehicle or by
changing the VIN of the initial vehicle.

You wholly misunderstand the IMEI ... as it is NOTHING like a VIN
(legally).

The IMEI, like the VIN, is issued by the manufacturer; but, unlike the
VIN, the particular IMEI is neither unique nor is the numerical system
governed by federal laws. More importantly, you can (physically) change
your IMEI anytime you like, simply by inserting your GSM cellphone card
into any GSM phone in the United States.

Do you actually understand this distinction?

I repeat: there is nothing in your GSM cellphone contract nor in US law
that prohibits your (physically) changing your IMEI number simply by
inserting your GSM SIM card into another cellphone in the United States.

Your wireless cell phone service will still work just fine - whether it's
an anonymous pay-as-you-go wireless carrier or if it's a decidedly non-
anonymous bill-me-monthly wireless service. Either way, despite any
initial IMEI of record, the cell phone service remains the same.

Notice this is exactly like the Media Access Controller (MAC) address of
all your ethernet wired and wireless devices, whether they be a computer,
a smartphone, or a wireless toaster.

The MAC address of a wireless device, exactly like the IMEI address, is
neither unique nor governed by US law (as far as I can tell). You can
change your MAC address daily (and many people do), simply to provide an
extra measure of anonymity on the net, since all public hot-spot routers
log and retain your location and MAC address.

Since both the IMEI and MAC address actually constrain your PRIVACY, and
since there is nothing in your GSM cellphone contract nor in US law that
prohibits your (physically) changing your IMEI number simply by inserting
your GSM SIM card into another cellphone in the United States ...

Returning to the topic, may I ask the LAWYERS out there ...

Is there a single US law that prohibits changing logically (i.e.,
software) the IMEI or MAC address of a GSM cellphone?

Harold Lathom

unread,
Jan 26, 2011, 9:34:16 PM1/26/11
to
On Sun, 23 Jan 2011 08:44:04 -0800, Riyadh AlYamama wrote:
>> There are obviously good reasons for changing the IMEI number
> I work in the field and can't think of a reason to do so except for
> sponging off someone else's account, or masking a stolen phone. This is
> virtual identical to changing the VIN number on a vehicle.

You wholly misunderstand IMEI numbers and legitimate uses for privacy.
And, you obviously know nothing about IMEI numbers if you compare them to
vehicle VINs so I'm not sure that arguing technically with you is worth
the effort (I'll prove that to you in a later post if you like).

But this question isn't about why someone would want the privacy of being
able to change their IMEI number in the United States of America.

It's about the LEGAL ability, in the USA, of changing the IMEI number.

More correctly, after extensive googling, I can not find a single law in
the entire United States that prohibits changing the IMEI number (just
like there is no law that prohibits changing the MAC address or changing
your phone number for that matter or your home address).

I'll address Riyadh's wholly errant technical concerns separately ...

Does ANY LAWYER out there know if there is a SINGLE LAW in the USA
prohibiting the changing of the IMEI number on a GSM cellphone?

Mike

unread,
Jan 27, 2011, 10:13:29 AM1/27/11
to

I can think of one that might not be illegal (not sure) but still may be
against company policy/contract terms.

John Doe has a phone with an IMEI of 1234 that he owes Ace Cell Phone
Service $200 for unpaid bills. I buy the phone from him and want to get
it activated by Acme Wireless Phone Service. He was the legal owner of
the phone and I paid him cold, hard cash. All strictly aboveboard and
legal.

Now Acme says that Ace has the IMEI locked. I had another phone with an
IMEI of 5678 that has been destroyed (and there's no way it's ever gonna
be used again.) I clone the IMEI from it to this new phone and Acme will
now activate it.

Against policy of Ace and Acme? Probably. Illegal? Maybe not.

And there's reasons why VINs are changed/don't match as well that are
perfectly legal. (Almost) all vehicles have the VIN on the dash as well
as on the engine block (and often other places as well.) My vehicle with
a VIN of 1234 is in a wreck. I replace the dash section with one from a
junk yard that has a plate reading 5678. The engine also was replaced
with 4321. Now I've got 2 VINs, neither of which match the decal on the
door post but that are perfectly legal and legit. I may have to file
some paperwork with the DMV saying "here's the mis-matching VINs and
here's why they don't match" but they do allow for such circumstances
and as long as it's not being done in a fraudulent manner, it's
perfectly legal and even expected to happen at times.

Harold Lathom

unread,
Feb 2, 2011, 6:04:13 PM2/2/11
to
On Thu, 27 Jan 2011 10:13:29 -0500, Mike wrote:
> John Doe has a phone with an IMEI of 1234 that he owes Ace Cell Phone
> Service $200 for unpaid bills. I buy the phone from him and want to get
> it activated by Acme Wireless Phone Service. He was the legal owner of
> the phone and I paid him cold, hard cash. All strictly aboveboard and
> legal.
>
> Now Acme says that Ace has the IMEI locked. I had another phone with an
> IMEI of 5678 that has been destroyed (and there's no way it's ever gonna
> be used again.) I clone the IMEI from it to this new phone and Acme will
> now activate it.

Hi Mike,

Thanks for trying to help.

The question at hand is simply whether or not there are laws governing
the changing of IMEI numbers in the United States.

I don't think anyone knows the answer. Sadly.

I was hoping there was at least one technically astute lawyer out there
who, if they didn't know offhand, they at least knew where it might be
found.

It's OT to take a stab at the analogies of why you'd want to have privacy
(I'd ask the guy who started that why he closes his curtains at night -
is he doing something illegal in his bedroom?); but I don't think your
legality argument above would hold water either simply because I don't
think the phone companies "care" one bit about someone's IMEI (if they
owed them money).

By that I mean if "John Doe" owed "Ace Cell Phone Service" $200, they
would try to collect that $200 from John Doe by the normal means. If John
Doe changed his billing address, his cellphone, his cellphone IMEI, or
even legally changed his name, Ace Cel Phone Service would continue to
try to collect the money from him by normal means. About the only thing
they'd "do" to his cellphone is cut off service to his SIM card. Until
then, John Doe would be free to put his SIM card in "any" GSM phone and
it would work fine (no matter what IMEI number) ... as long as John Doe
continues to pay his service bill.

The point is Ace Cell Phone Service wouldn't care one bit about the guy's
cellphone IMEI. And neither would your service provider if John Doe sold
you his cellphone. If, in addition to John Doe's overdue cellphone
service bill, he also didn't finish his subsidized contract for that
phone hardware he sold you, they'd merely charge "him" another $200 fee
(or whatever) for breaking "his" contract. They would gladly start
service for you, even with the IMEI number from John Doe because, as I
said, they just don't care about the IMEI number.

But all this is off topic.

Do any lawyers out there know WHERE I could find out whether or not there
is a law in the United States that governs whether an individual can
legally change the IMEI stored in the EEPROM of the cellphone?

Robert Bonomi

unread,
Feb 3, 2011, 9:34:18 AM2/3/11
to
In article <iicntd$efm$1...@speranza.aioe.org>,

Harold Lathom <75537...@compuserve.com> wrote:
>
>The question at hand is simply whether or not there are laws governing
>the changing of IMEI numbers in the United States.
>
>I don't think anyone knows the answer. Sadly.

I guarantee *SOMEBODY* does. And it is a virtual certainty that there is
_more_than_one_ such person.

>I was hoping there was at least one technically astute lawyer out there
>who, if they didn't know offhand, they at least knew where it might be
>found.

It doesn't take a lawyer to answer _that_ question.

It would be found in either Title 18, or Title 47 USC. Or, more probably,
as an administrative regulation located in in Title 47 CFR. Any reference,
"if it exists", will probably _not_ mention the IMEI` "by name", rather
there will be generic language that describes the 'function' of stored data
like the IMEI, and how it is used in cell-phone networks.

Dan Lanciani

unread,
Feb 3, 2011, 4:53:41 PM2/3/11
to

In article <iicntd$efm$1...@speranza.aioe.org>, 75537...@compuserve.com (Harold Lathom) writes:

[big snip]

| legality argument above would hold water either simply because I don't
| think the phone companies "care" one bit about someone's IMEI (if they
| owed them money).

I can't answer your question either, but I think your premise is wrong.
At least some phone companies do care about the IMEI even if you do not
owe them any money. They use it to determine the type of handset you are
using with their SIM card. An older reason for this was to be sure the
handset was "compatible" (usually in the sense that it was programmed
the way they wanted for roaming) but a newer issue is value-based charges,
i.e., a particular service may cost more on one device than on another.

For example, my understanding is that if I were to take the T-Mobile SIM
card from my old WM SmartPhone and put it in a new unlocked Android phone
T-Mobile would shut off (at least) my data service because that same
unlimited data service is "worth" more (and thus priced higher) on an
Android. (I think they may have raised the base price anyway so this
particular example may now apply only to grandfathered plans.)

I'm not thrilled about this trend of identifying handsets since it seems
to partially defeat the purpose of a SIM card and move us back towards
the days when service was locked to particular hardware. But since it
is happening I'm sure the providers would argue that changing the IMEI
is (at least) fraudulent just as they argued that changing the ESN (even
if only to use multiple phones on an account for which you paid) was
fraudulent. If changing IMEIs becomes common providers will almost
certainly have strong legislation passed making it illegal just as they
did with ESNs.

Again, I realize this doesn't answer your question but from a practical
standpoint even if it is legal now it will not be if/when people start
doing it. :)

Dan Lanciani
ddl@danlan.*com

Harold Lathom

unread,
Feb 7, 2011, 7:46:19 PM2/7/11
to
On Thu, 03 Feb 2011 21:53:41 +0000, Dan Lanciani wrote:
> They use [the IMEI] to determine the type of handset you

> are using with their SIM card. An older reason for this was to be sure
> the handset was "compatible" ... but a newer issue is

> value-based charges, i.e., a particular service may cost more on one
> device than on another.

Interesting.

I called up AT&T and they DO charge more if you put your SIM card (even
temporarily) into a phone that has a certain IMEI they consider data
enabled. Even if you don't want any data plan whatsoever, AT&T will still
automatically sock a $25/month data plan on you - even if you are not
using one bit (literally) of data. I was shocked. Yes, that defeats the
whole SIM card idea in the first place!

Calling Verizon, I found they have the same concept (of forcing a data
plan even if you don't want it if you have a certain IMEI of your phone).

However, T-Mobile, unlike the others, does NOT care what the IMEI is of
the phone you put your SIM card into.

As an aside, it seems "illegal" to me that a phone company (AT&T for
example) can charge you for a service that you neither use nor want,
based solely on the IMEI of the cellphone!

All the more reason to be able to change the IMEI if it's legal (which it
appears to be) in the USA.

Harold Lathom

unread,
Feb 7, 2011, 7:53:34 PM2/7/11
to
On Thu, 03 Feb 2011 08:34:18 -0600, Robert Bonomi wrote:
> It would be found in either Title 18, or Title 47 USC. Or, more
> probably, as an administrative regulation located in in Title 47 CFR.

OK. So I look up Title 18 USC:
http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/uscode18/usc_sup_01_18_10_I.html

And I go to the section "TITLE 18 > PART I > CRIMES":

There are 123 "chapters" ... all but the last few can't be it.

Going to "Chapter 121 Stored wire and electronic communications and
transactional records access (§§ 2701—2712)" ...

The closest I can find is "§ 2709. Counterintelligence access to
telephone toll and transactional records"
http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/uscode18/
usc_sec_18_00002709----000-.html

As far as I can tell, there's nothing about the IMEI in there (by any
name).

Likewise with my Title 47 USC search.

>From that, should I conclude that there is nothing that prohibits
changing the IMEI in a cellphone in the United States (at least
Federally).

nos...@isp.com

unread,
Feb 5, 2011, 10:29:58 AM2/5/11
to
Harold Lathom <75537...@compuserve.com> wrote:

> I realize it's illegal to change an IMEI of a cell phone in the

> UK and other countries that perform blacklisting . . . . [But i]s


> it legal to change an IMEI number for a cell phone wholly
> owned and operated in the United States?

> * * *
> [A]fter extensive googling, I can not find a single law in the entire
> United States that prohibits changing the IMEI number . . . .

You are correct to suppose that there is not what you refer to as "a
single law" in the U.S. that is worded comparably to the one in the UK
to which you apparently refer.

But -- in addition to the not by you answered question whether you
here use the term "illegal" to refer only to a penal statute or
governmental administrative regulation, enforceable as such only by
some governmental actor if that actor opts to exercise the discretion
to do so, or also in a broader civilly "law redressable" sense, as
would occur if the IMEI changing cell phone user violated his or her
contract with the service provider by making that modification to the
device -- it would be a mistake for you to suppose that your inability
to find such "a single law" that prohibits the change about which you
ask means that a user doing this would be acting lawfully in all
circumstances.

Indeed, you in this respect indulge in a not uncommon but also core
intellectual error in posing your query in the open-ended form you do
-- namely, that you omit factual context apart from the making of the
one change you posit. To nevertheless expect an actually
substantively informative answer would thus be comparable to you
accepting as correct a simply stated "Yes" (or "No") answer to you
asking, without saying anything more, "Is it illegal to possess or use
a screwdriver?" or, "Is it illegal to possess or use a scalpel?"

But while it is not (to use your word) "illegal" for a D.I.Y.
homeowner or a carpenter retained by her to have and use a screwdriver
to build or repair a chair or, for that matter, as a prying device
(e.g., to open a paint can), having a screwdriver one intends to use
or actually comparably uses, e.g., to unscrew a door hinge or to pry
open a window of someone else's residence or vehicle, in furtherance
of a burglary is quite another matter; and while the use by a surgeon
of a scalpel for a life-saving operation to repair a near fatally
damaged heart valve not merely would not be "illegal" and may also be
laudable, possession with intent to use and all the more so actual use
of a scalpel by a modern day Jack-the-Ripper would be quite another
matter.

In other words, to provide a meaningful answer to your question would
require knowing the answer to the "Why (exactly)?" and, "In what
circumstances . . .?" questions: for what purposes, in particular,
would the user change his mobile phone's IMEI?

With all deference due to the structural distinction between, OTOH, a
combination of mobile identification number and system code and the
electronic serial number, which commonly will be found on a
comparatively easily user changeable subscriber identity module. and,
OTOH, the IMEI code, which is not necessarily hardware- or software-
tied to such a MIN and SID and ESN SIM, your apparent assumption that
this "not necessarily" in this context means something like "not ever"
or "may not be" is . . . well, . . . not necessarily correct:

The software used by a particular cell phone service provider might be
programmed to be integrated so that a unilateral change by a user of
his or her device's IMEI not only may violate the customer/user
agreement, at least to make it "legal" for the service provider to
terminate that contract, but (even if one would be correct to presume
that you do not have in mind any such behavior by you if you were to
change your cell phone's IMEI) may be in furtherance of and so make
the device an instrumentality of criminal misconduct.

(To take just one example, CALEA warrants frequently are applied for
and granted in part by federal prosecutors providing what they say
they have reason to believe are the IMEIs of target phones even as it
is commonly understood that an IMEI, standing alone, is not always
necessarily tied to any one user; and cell phone providers are obliged
by that federal law and by related P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act and other
provisions to facilitate such governmental surveillance.)

> * * * [I relatedly presumee that] there is nothing in [a cell
> phone user's] GSM cellphone contract nor in US law that prohibits
> . . . (physically) changing your IMEI number simply by inserting


> your GSM SIM card into another cellphone in the United States.

Whether this is correct will of course depend on the GSM provider's
contract with the user(s) you have in mind. However, more or less
generally speaking (except for provisions made unenforceable by
otherwise applicable law such as, most notably, mandating that
"unlocking" if changing the IMEI to achieve this is needed would not
be a violation of the DMCA if done for the personal use of the phone
user), most (actually, I dare guess that all) such customer/user
agreements in the U.S. do have provisions which, at the very least in
effect (i.e., even if not in exactly these words), authorize a cell
phone provider to terminate the user's contract if the service
provider decides that the user who does this gives the provider cause
for so doing.

For you to presume otherwise as you apparently do indeed probably is a
contractual analog to your "a single law" (mis)assumption if, as
appears, you presume that there mere absence from a user/customer
agreement of language, in haec verba, that the user may not change his
phone's IMEI means that changing the IMEI would not be a contractual
violation.

But such a verbal absence leaves open the questions whether, e.g., the
contract prohibits modification of the device from its manufacturer
specifications or is a change that the provider determines violates a
prohibition promulgated by a U.S. governmental agency or which
negatively affects its network or other customers, etc., and, if there
is such language, whether the provide would invoke its discovery of
the change you posit as being "illegal" in this civil law sense.

It is also possible (but, perhaps one correctly may guess, improbable)
that there are not such contractual provisions.

But here, too, determining which of these alternatives will apply
always depends not on generalities of the sort in which you indulge
and, instead, on what the particular service provider's and customer
have agreed as stated/memorialized in their customer/user contract.

emmanuelj...@gmail.com

unread,
Jul 13, 2014, 1:58:45 AM7/13/14
to

ddaypunk06

unread,
Jan 24, 2015, 4:02:04 PM1/24/15
to
On Sunday, July 13, 2014 at 12:58:45 AM UTC-5, emmanuelj...@gmail.com wrote:
> Here is your answer:
>
> http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c112:S.3186.IS:

I have seen that pop up on XDA regarding similar questions. If I remember correctly, its a bill that was introduced to the house in 2012, and never made it out. It was referred to a committee and never made into actual law. The wording also implies more criminal intent (use of "knowingly" and such).
Reply all
Reply to author
Forward
0 new messages