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Wednesday, 10 January, 2001, 12:42 GMT
Foiling the phone thieves

Mobile phone thefts are now common on UK streets. But how can phone owners defend themselves against this new crime wave?

Ever walked along the street, mobile phone in hand, deep in conversation or tapping out a text message?

Hans Snook uses his mobile in a phone box
Avoid making calls out in the open
Apart from risking walking under a bus, chances are you'll be oblivious to any unscrupulous eyes sizing up your phone.

If you're toting a recent model, you could be the ideal target for a snatch-and-run theft.

And ever noticed how everyone seems to check their phones when they emerge from the cinema, pub or train station? Well, so have the thieves, who are increasingly stalking the streets outside such venues.

Police say mobile phone thefts are now common on UK streets, since the handsets are both desirable and easy to snatch. "Phone-jacking" accounted for much of the 14% rise in robberies in the latest crime figures.

Click here for tips to beat phone thieves

Perdita Patterson, of What Mobile magazine, says most phone-jackers will sell the handset after taking out the SIM card - the microchip which stores the owner's details and pre-programmed phone numbers.

The popular Nokia 32 handset is valued at about 70 and can be on-sold for about 40, she says, while a top-of-the-range mobile could fetch about 400.

An early mobile phone
Callers, try to be inconspicuous
"The customer for these is somebody who has an older model who wants to upgrade to a smaller, better phone, but doesn't want to go to the hassle of changing contracts.

"If they fit their existing SIM card into the stolen handset, they in effect get a new mobile without having to change their number."

The networks are increasingly putting SIM locks on mobiles, to prevent an Orange handset, for instance, being used with a BT Cellnet SIM card.

However, not only does European law look unkindly on such anti-competitive practices, there are also internet sites offering the technology to override the locks, Miss Patterson says.

Friends and family

The distress of losing your phone, and the raft of contact numbers they usually hold, can sometimes be compounded by the heartlessness of the new owners.

When Absolutely Fabulous star Julia Sawalha was robbed of her mobile in 1999, the thieves dialled her family home claiming to be police officers.

They informed her parents: "Your daughter has had an accident." Two men were later convicted of making a malicious communication.

To foil the phone thieves, you can't beat making them believe you have no phone to steal, says Commander Tim Godwin, of the Metropolitan Police.

Man using a mobile phone in the street
Use your eyes, as well as your ears
"Try to avoid making calls in the street. If you have to answer a call, remain aware of your surroundings. If you have any cause for concern, terminate the call immediately."

Even an expert touch-typer would have difficulty sending a text message while keeping an eye out for a possible assailant. The advice is: Dnt txt msg in the strt!

Ringing the changes

Commander Godwin also suggests turning your phone from "ring" to "vibrate". There's nothing like a bleeping chorus of "Fur Elise" to alert thieves to easy pickings.

Wearing you phone on your belt is not only sartorially questionable, but also another invitation to muggers.

Woman using a phone in the street
Txt dnger! Eyes down for an easy swipe
For vital street calls, using a hands-free set while keeping your phone out of sight will also reduce the opportunities of those eager to part you from your pride and joy.

While we should all be vigilant, Commander Godwin says most victims of this new breed of street crime are young people.

"It is predominately a crime perpetrated by young people against other young people. It's up to the parents who give their children phones to warn them of the dangers."

Indeed, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens believes many phone robberies are an extension of school bullying.

School pupils use their phones
The young are a favourite target for phone thieves
If you are unlucky enough to lose you phone, despite your diligence, what are the chances of getting it back?

One mobile unfortunately looks much like another, says Commander Godwin.

"We have great difficulty in identifying the phones we recover.

"Very few owners realise their phones have a unique ID number. Press *#06# on your phone and a 15-digit number will appear. Take a note of it, it can be extremely useful."

Beating the thieves

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31 Oct 00 | Scotland
Children become crime targets
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