Huge surge in mobile phone thefts


Thefts of mobile phones in England and Wales have surged, with new research suggesting more than 700,000 were snatched last year.

The study published by the Home Office on Tuesday estimates the overall number of stolen mobiles is more than double the 330,000 figure officially recorded by police.

Schoolchildren – often targeted by other youths – are at least five times more likely to be targeted by mobile phone thieves than adults, with 48% of victims aged under 18.

With a mobile phone stolen approximately every three minutes, the government says the industry could be doing more to reverse the figures.

Minister John Denham, launching a mobile phone crime prevention initiative at a south London school, said: “I am aware that this year mobile phones were one of the top items on many kids’ Christmas lists and a lot of children will be tempted to bring their new phones to school.

“I want to make sure that these children don’t become the latest victims in a disturbing new robbery trend.”

Not only are overall robbery rates up 13%, but the proportion of those involving mobiles has soared from 8% three years ago to 28% last year, says the survey.

The total number of phone robberies is thought to have risen almost threefold in five years, but mobile phone ownership is also rising rapidly.

Chairman of the Youth Justice Board, Lord Warner, said the figures indicated an “extremely worrying phenomenon” of large numbers of young people committing crimes on their peers.

He said both parents and schools needed to question the wisdom of allowing pupils take such valuable items to school.

The government wants to see initiatives from mobile phone companies, and with them and the police is studying the feasibility of piloting text-bombing of stolen handsets, successfully used in Holland.

Mr Denham said: “A start has been made, but more needs to be done before Britain’s mobile phone system can lead the world in security.”

The research comes after repeated government warnings to mobile phone companies to improve security.

Phone theft statistics
Mobile phone stolen every three minutes in UK
Average age of thief is 16
Up to half of phone theft victims are under 18
Source: Home Office

It wants companies to introduce measures which allow accounts to be cut off when customers pass on the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number (the 15-digit number which appears when you press *#06#) of stolen handsets.

Virgin, One to One and Orange offer this service, but a spokesman on Tuesday said BT Cellnet and Vodafone have failed to agree to the measures.

Orange issued a statement saying it had been working with the government, police and the industry “towards developing practical solutions to combat the problem” of rising thefts.

A spokeswoman for BT Cellnet said that while the company was working with the Home Office, it did not agree with the IMEI measures.

She said: “IMEI barring does not solve the problem because you can reprogram new IMEIs.

“Also IMEI barring does not disable the handset from being usable. All it does is stop calls being made on the network that barred it.

“The handset itself is completely usable and does not lose its functionality.”

Ministers are still considering whether to introduce legislation that will force networks to introduce the anti-theft measures, but the spokesman said that would be “a last resort”.

Officials say the increase in mobile phone theft has distorted otherwise generally falling crime rates.

Some of the robberies involve violence – on New Year’s Day a 19-year-old woman was shot in the head by a mugger who was trying to steal her mobile phone.

Phone firms defend security record


As new research uncovers a huge surge in mobile phone thefts, the government has called on the industry to do more to discourage the trend.

So what do the different players say about the issue?

Home Office – Minster John Denham said UK phone operators have already agreed some early measures to test ways of putting stolen phones out of action.

“A start has been made, but more needs to be done before Britain’s mobile phone system can lead the world in security.

“We’re also looking to handset manufacturers to show more interest in the security of the phones they are selling to British consumers.”

His department has spent a year trying to persuade the industry to install equipment which allows stolen handsets to be immobilised when customers pass on their 12-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, obtained by keying *#06# into most phones.

While Virgin, One 2 One and Orange offer the service BT Cellnet and Vodafone have been named as the two networks which have failed to agree the new measures.

A Home Office spokesman has said: “They are saying it is not worth their while because the next generation of phones are coming along in a couple of years and their customers are not demanding it.”

Legislation could be introduced to force companies to introduce the anti-theft measures, but that would be a last resort.

BT Cellnet – A spokeswoman said: “IMEI barring does not solve the problem and is a red herring.”

The method only stops calls being made on the network that barred it, the spokeswoman went on, and the handset itself is completely usable if a Sim card is put in from another network.

New IMEIs can be programmed into stolen handsets and 10% of IMEIs are not unique.

“We are working with the Home Office on all aspects of security for current and future networks, ” she said.

“We are a network, not a handset manufacturer. Handset manufacturers will have to be asked questions as well.

Vodafone – The firm has not adopted IMEI technology because it is “unreliable”, a spokeswoman said, and could lead to innocent phone users being disconnected.

“Duplicate numbers are coming out of the factories now and you can have two or three handsets with the same number,” she said.

“You might be blocking several other people who have done nothing wrong.

“In any case, there is software you can download from the internet to change IMEI numbers when a handset is stolen.”

She said the government was aware of the firm’s reasons for not introducing the measure.

Vodafone had told the government if it was sent all stolen IMEI numbers it could search records and hand over names and addresses of users matching the number, the spokeswoman went on.

“We thought it would perhaps lead police to someone with spurious reasons for holding the phone and would be a step in the right direction to breaking up these crime rings.

“But the government declined the offer for whatever reason.”

Orange – In a statement the firm said it had been working with the government, police and other industry members towards developing practical solutions to combat individual mobile phone thefts.

It continued: “We remain committed to the government’s objective to reduce this type of crime and believe that our method is the most effective currently available in the United Kingdom.

“When an Orange phone is reported lost or stolen to us by the owner, using our Equipment Identity Register (EIR) we can immediately disable both the SIM card and the handset, thereby making the phone worthless to the thief.

“This system also applies to our pre-pay customers who are requested to register their phone before activation on our network.”

Orange also offers all customers guidelines on registering their phone and practical steps on how to protect it.

Virgin Mobile – Issued a statement saying: “In order to help reduce mobile phone-related crime we are working in partnership with the Home Office, police and the rest of the mobile phone industry to improve the security of mobile phones, and to educate the public about the simple precautions they can take to reduce theft.

“We believe individual customers should be able to make informed security decisions and we encourage as many as possible to register their phones with Virgin Mobile.

“This enables us to react swiftly and freeze the account by blocking the SIM card’s use by anyone else if a phone is reported stolen.”

The statement added that the company could also disable handsets, making them useless to thieves, if given the IMEI number of a stolen handset.