British police and trading standards officers are warning that a new trend in mobile phone services is being exploited by criminals.
In one case, a pensioner handed over £9,000 of life savings to bogus builders.
Pre-pay mobiles, which involve no contracts or rental charges, have been very popular since they came on the market last year.
Airtime is paid for in advance through a voucher system.
Because there are no credit checks, contracts or connection charges involved in signing up for the phone and no monthly invoices afterwards, the users are hard to trace.
But the system’s anonymity is of increasing concern for law enforcement agencies.
Trading standards officers say the phones are being used by criminals to commit offences.
Senior officer Steve Playle said: “When I come to try to trace the subscriber of a mobile phone that’s been used for crime it’s impossible to find out who’s been using that phone.
“No details will exist – they’ll be anonymous basically,” he said.
Because the technology is new, the problem of its criminal use is only just coming to light.
Trading standards officers are currently hunting a gang of bogus builders making use of untraceable phones.
The builders dupe people into pre-paying for work that is not needed and is never carried out.
The mobile phone industry says it will work with police to combat crime.
But trading standards officers have written to the government seeking a clampdown.
Steve Playle, a senior officer, says the authority and police want new phones to be registered.
“I’m all in favour of trying to widen mobile phone ownership but clearly the regulators have overlooked the problem that these phones can be used for crime, and that’s something they really must tackle,” he said.
The industry regulator, Oftel, says it will be closely monitoring the situation.