Burglars target old gas bills

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(First Edition) BURGLARS are stealing gas and electricity bills to gain credit facilities on the modern generation of digital mobile telephones.

They are using the personal details on the bills to set up fraudulent accounts charged to their victims, many of whom have never even owned a mobile telephone. Even legitimate phone dealers will issue credit after seeing just one bill and making one call to a credit reference agency to check for a positive rating.

The police are warning that the fraud is becoming so widespread, people should store old bills in a safe place.

'Make sure you never just ditch your old bills - shred them or burn them first. These are now just as valuable as a video player or jewellery,' one police officer said last week.

Detective Constable Colin Weeks warned that if someone sets up a false account it can cause huge problems for the person whose credit status they use. 'Most contracts tie you in for a year,' he said. 'You have to go some way to show you didn't buy the telephone.'

David Savage, chairman of Astec, a mobile telephone service provider, said: 'I now regard anything with my name on it as confidential information. If I receive a gas bill I file it very carefully.'

Mr Weeks, a member of Scotland Yard's mobile telephone fraud unit, said stolen bills are worth pounds 10 each on the black market. Mobile telephone operators estimate they are spotting, and removing, at least 20,000 illegitimate accounts from their networks every month.

Thieves are interested in all bills, including bank statements and domestic telephone bills, as well as those from the utilities. 'If a burglar collects an armful of bills on the way out he automatically makes an extra pounds 60 to pounds 100,' Mr Weeks said.

House thefts are not the only way to acquire bills. They are being taken from council tips, from empty houses where bills pile up and from squats.

Digital mobile telephones use a card, similar to a credit card, that slots into the back of the handset. This was an innovation aimed at preventing earlier frauds including 'cloning', where fraudsters would use identification numbers from legitimate handsets to create copy telephones and avoid paying for calls.

But the new cards have opened up the possibility of the new credit card fraud. Mr Weeks said much of the fraud is perpetrated through unauthorised 'sub dealers', who get commission on new accounts. All they need is lots of new identities. 'Then they let someone use the handset for a few weeks too.'

Mr Weeks said drug dealers are exploiting the new fraud which gives them an account they can run free of charge for six to eight weeks before anyone realises it is not legitimate.

If the telephone is investigated it will lead back to someone who is in no way connected with them.

'Not only is this lucrative, it disassociates the drug dealer from the phone and the guy who connects him gets commission,' Mr Weeks said.

Digital mobile telephones are particularly attractive because unlike their analogue forerunners they can be used in more than 30 countries around the world. This is called 'roaming', and is a growing problem for operators who have to claim the cost of calls made on their network from operators in the country where the original credit was obtained.

Gary Bernstein, head of security at Cellnet, wants photographs included on drivers' licences to help curb fraud.