Telephones automatically barred from networks when a theft is reported are re-entering the system in their thousands after being 'rechipped' by people the law does not treat as criminals.
Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, has written to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, urging the closure of the legal loophole. Organised rings of mobile phone thieves were getting 'easy pickings' amounting to about pounds 50m a year, Mr Maclellan said.
The rechipping process, involving the reprogramming of serial numbers so that the network no longer recognises the phone as the stolen original, can be easily accomplished using equipment that can be plugged into an ordinary home computer.
Chipping services offered by dealers and openly advertised in trade magazines and newspapers have been defended as a necessary facility for honest customers buying second-hand telephones from previous owners who have run up bad debts during the recession. But the biggest beneficiaries appear to be criminals.
The reprogramming racket has provided a ready outlet for small- and big-time thieves - the black market price of up to pounds 150 for a stolen cellphone easily outstrips that of a stolen car stereo - while spawning a mini-industry of 'phone chippers' turning out new sets of chipping software each time a new model is launched.
Thefts are estimated by the industry to be running at 10,000 a month, more than 400 each day, while police forces around the country believe they account for 40 per cent of city-centre car break-ins.
Mr Maclennan has told Mr Howard that the loophole could be easily closed with a minor amendment to the 1984 Telecommunications Act in the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill.
'This is straightforward counterfeit, but astonishingly it is not illegal,' he said. 'The police know who many of the crooks are, but cannot touch them.' A similar process of 'cloning' a subscribers' serial and telephone numbers into another person's phone results in innocent subscribers being billed for fraudulent calls. Both processes render the phone untraceable.Reuse content