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Monday, 7 January, 2002, 13:38 GMT
Making mobiles mugger-proof
Graphic, BBC
As new figures show a surge in phone thefts, manufacturers are being urged to make mobiles more secure and people warned not to upgrade to avoid being robbed. Yet the industry is reliant on as many people as possible buying new phones.

On New Year's Day in London, a 19-year-old was shot in the head by a mugger who wanted her mobile phone. A few days later, three boys, aged 10, 12 and 16, were held up by a gunman and forced to hand over a mobile, 25 and bank cards.

More than a third of muggings involve mobile thefts
The handsets are usually sold after SIM cards removed
The craze for slick mobiles has led to a spate of thefts in the UK, with Home Office figures expected to show that more than 700,000 phones were stolen last year. In London alone, mobile phone thefts account for more than half of all street attacks.

Many of those targeted are under-17s, whose parents may well have given them phones in the belief that the devices will make them safer. Some schools have now told pupils not to carry mobiles.

The Home Office and police want to see better security in handsets and network connections so that mobiles are useless if they are stolen.

John Denham, the minister responsible for police and crime prevention, has said that the mobile phone industry, which has seen huge growth in recent years, must play its part.

Note the serial number

Yet such calls have been made before to little avail. More than a year ago, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw urged phone company executives to introduce more security measures.

How to get your phone's IMEI number, BBC
A poster urging London pupils to make their phones more secure
Although companies can immobilise stolen phones if the owner has the serial number of the handset (the 15-digit IMEI number which appears when you press *#06#), only Virgin, One to One and Orange use the system.

Orange phones, for instance, can only be used with that network's SIM cards, but the software to disable this feature is available online for as little as 30.

Hugh Morgan, of Mobile Choice magazine, says some shops will unlock a phone from a network with few questions asked.

Let's buy it

With as many as 40 million Britons already owning at least one mobile, the industry is now keen to tempt existing customers to buy newer models with more features.

In many cases, it is these slick new handsets that tempt phone thieves, Mr Morgan says.

Mobile phones are very stealable

Hugh Morgan
"Mobiles are far more like fashion accessories now, and some handsets are worth up to 500. These might be fitted with features such as MP3 players, making the phone a mini entertainment device."

And no doubt those whose phones have been stolen help keep the registers ringing as they replace their missing handsets. But Mr Morgan dismisses speculation that it might not be in the phone industry's interest to beef up security.

"What they do tend to do is appeal to people's fashion sense and their need to follow the pack, particularly those at the younger end of the market.

Mobile user, BBC
Callers, keep your eyes peeled
"Mobile phones are very stealable, and the saturation of the market also makes security difficult what with all those IMEI numbers out there."

By far the best way to combat phone crime is to make users more aware of what they can do to minimise the risk. As a deterrent, users could put a security tag on the back that indicates that the IMEI number has been noted.

"Then, there's the issue of personal security: don't use your phone when you are on your own at night; set it to vibrate rather than ring; and use locks to prevent people making calls on your phone."

Companies such as the Carphone Warehouse also have the software to make free copies of customers' SIM cards, so that those who lose their mobiles don't lose the numbers in their address books.

See also:

10 Jan 01 | UK
Foiling the phone thieves
08 Nov 01 | Education
Pupils warned over mobile phone theft
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