A nationwide crackdown on mobile phone crime is being launched with the creation of a special police unit.
The number of people using mobiles in the UK is now 51 million
Latest figures show half of all street crime now involves mobile phone theft.
Nearly 200 are stolen in England and Wales every day, mostly in London, and many are exported by gangs to Africa, Asia and Europe.
The £1m National Mobile Phone Crime Unit will bring together immigration, Customs and Excise and police officers with industry experts.
Senior police officers say, if successful, the unit could make a "significant" impact on the UK's robbery problem.
REACTIVATING A STOLEN PHONE
Over 70% of the world's mobile phones use GSM, the
Global System for Mobile Communications
It means mobile phones can be used across national boundaries - known as 'roaming'
But it also means a phone stolen in the UK can be used anywhere where GSM operates including Europe, Asia and Africa
Re-programming a stolen
mobile phone to operate in the UK is relatively simple
But to work abroad all it needs is a new SIM card
Mobile phone networks have recently made advances in anti-crime measures, with all stolen phones now capable of being blocked for use in Britain.
Tough penalties are also in place for criminals who seek to re-programme handsets.
However, Scotland Yard's Commander John Yates, who will be in charge of the unit, said it was believed the "epidemic" of mobile phone theft across Britain was still being fuelled by an international market.
Handsets taken abroad do not need re-programming and, while British customers are offered cheap phones as an incentive to sign up with networks, users abroad enjoy inexpensive calls but have to pay for handsets costing up to £800 each.
"This is all speculative at the moment," said Cmdr Yates, "the aim of the unit is to find out
what is generating mobile phone theft and what we can do to combat it".
"If we crack it, it will make a significant impact on our robbery problem."
To block a lost or stolen mobile
He said there were some extremely organised gangs, particularly behind burglaries on
"The whole purpose is to understand where the volume is going," Cmdr Yates added.
As part of the new initiative police are hoping to get industry co-operation to set up an international database to make all stolen handsets useless whatever their destination.
Information gathered by the National Mobile Phone Crime Unit about how criminals operate will be passed to all law enforcement agencies and police forces across the UK.
Although officially launched on Wednesday, the unit has already been involved in 40
operations, making 22 arrests and recovering 1,200 stolen mobiles.
Since 1999 the number of people using mobiles in Britain has risen from 17 million to 51 million.
And soaring street crime, especially phone snatches, has led to criticism
of the government's record on law and order.
Earlier this year Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to cut street crime in the worst affected