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.