The Government is considering changing the law to cut rocketing levels of mobile phone fraud and theft following recommendations from an industry study group.
The four mobile network companies already intend to introduce a code of practice for mobile phone dealers, who will be obliged to make their best efforts to check that any phone brought to them for connection to a network is not stolen. They are not obliged to do so now.
Anyone can legally capture the phone number and electronic serial number transmitted from a legitimate phone and program it into a stolen phone. The owner of the legitimate phone then bears the cost of calls made on that number. The proposals would make such programming, called "rechipping" or "cloning", illegal.
The group also proposes increasing the maximum prison sentence for "dishonestly making calls with intent to avoid payment" to five years instead of two and making possession of such equipment a crime.
Ian Taylor, the science and technology minister, told Parliament that the Government will consider introducing such measures. "The magnitude of the problem means it is incumbent on me and other ministers to regard this as a matter of priority," he said later. The industry has been lobbying the Government to outlaw rechipping for almost two years.
Every month 12,500 mobile phones are stolen, while criminals "clone" more than 4,000 phones using scanning equipment. Cloning rose by 500 per cent in the year to August. "Highly organised crime rings are using stolen and illegally reconnected handsets as a means of financing other activities such as drug trafficking," Jonathan Clark, chairman of the industry's Federation of Communications Services, said.
Mr Taylor said: "I don't want an industry which is one of the great British success stories to be undermined by fears that owning a mobile phone can leave you exposed to fraud."
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