Mobile-phone industry acts against 'clones'

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The Independent Online

The mobile-phone industry yesterday launched a campaign to try to make illegal the possession or supply of "cloning" equipment.

Phone cloning, or copying, costs the industry and consumers more than pounds 100m per year and is thought to be responsible for up to 40 per cent of car break-ins in city centres.

Cloning uses relatively simple equipment, such as radio scanners, much of which can be bought off the shelf in specialist electronics stores.

Using radio scanners, the fraudsters can intercept the supposedly secret electronic serial number (ESN) of the phone and also the subscriber number. Once these two pieces of information have been intercepted they can re- programme another phone, and, as far as the network operator is concerned, they are indistinguishable.

The cloned phone can be used until the victim notices the higher than normal phone bill or the network operator becomes aware that something is amiss, such as two simultaneous calls from different parts of the country.

A spokesman for the Federation of Communication Services (FCS), the industry body mounting the parliamentary campaign, described phone cloning as a "legal grey area".

"It's not illegal to re-chip or re-programme a mobile phone, as such - it's the resulting fraud that is illegal. We're just looking for tighter regulation.

"We think that there may be as many as 4,000 phones a month now being cloned. It's becoming a huge problem and customers are the innocent victims."

Howard Ford, managing director of Cellnet, said: "During the period August 1994 to August 1995 the incidence of cloning increased by some 500 per cent and continues to rise. Strong evidence also suggests that cloning is a major factor accounting for the 12,500 mobile phones which are reported stolen from customers each month."

The FCS will now seek to persuade an MP to guide an amendment to the 1984 Telecommunications Act through Parliament, to make it illegal to possess or use cloning equipment. They have also employed Westminster Strategy, a firm of parliamentary lobbyists, to help ease the passage of their amendment.

To tackle the growing problem, the police have tried prosecutions under the Computer Misuse Act and also attempted to bring charges of conspiracy to defraud under the Theft Act. All have failed.

At least one mobile phone service provider, which acts as intermediary between the consumer and the networks, has begun to take unilateral action.

From next February, Cellphones Direct will limit new customers' call charges to a maximum of pounds 50 per month and all international calls will be barred unless an agreement is reached with the customer.