SINCE the portable phone evolved from yuppie status symbol into essential business tool it has become a favourite target for thieves.
Phones are being stolen from cars at the rate of 10,000 a month, according to an RAC survey. The thieves often run up hefty bills at the victims' expense before selling the phones to receivers for around pounds 75. They are reprogrammed and sold on, as new, for up to pounds 400.
Small wonder that crooks are becoming bolder. Most thefts are still from unattended vehicles, but motorists paying for petrol are being targeted, as well as those stuck in traffic. 'Car-jacking', as it is known, is comparatively rare on this side of the Atlantic and largely confined to big cities.
The BBC's transport correspondent, Christopher Wayne, was waiting at traffic lights in west London one evening when he saw a man vault over the railings and stride towards his car. 'He wrenched open the door and got halfway into the car. But I managed to grab the phone and, at that moment, the traffic started moving again.'
The thief ran towards two other men. Mr Wayne pulled into a lay-by to phone the police. All three started running towards him. 'I jammed on the central locking and wound up the window, but one of them just smashed it. Luckily I managed to force my way into the traffic.' Nine arrests were made the next day. But most thefts of portable phones go unsolved.
Car makers, meanwhile, are looking at ways of making vehicles more secure. Locked doors and windows are not necessarily a deterrent, as Mr Wayne discovered. 'Your car can never be a Chieftain tank,' said Edmund King, the RAC's campaigns manager. 'Tougher laminated glass would be harder to break, but you have to balance security with safety. The police, ambulance service and fire brigade sometimes have to be able to break into a vehicle.'
One sign that alerts thieves to the presence of a car phone is the protruding aerial. BMW is apparently working on one that can be wired into the window.
Mr King suggests you keep the phone hidden and take it with you to the cash desk at a petrol station. 'You'd be surprised,' he adds, 'how many people don't use the pin-number code for long-distance calls. It would stop thieves running up a large bill at your expense.'
He says the epidemic of car- phone thefts has died down in the US, where it started. But American thieves have moved on to stealing airbags and catalytic converters.
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