Police target mobile-phone thieves

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A CRACKDOWN on mobile-phone crime that has driven down handset thefts in London, is to be introduced in every Scottish town and city.

The initiative will give the country's 15,000 police officers access to a database containing the details of millions of mobile phones, allowing them to carry out instant checks on handsets they suspect have been stolen.

Police anticipate the move, to be launched in the summer, will cut phone theft by suddenly making it a "high-risk" activity.

Mobile phones are now one of the most common targets for thieves in Britain, following the massive growth in the number of handsets and rising demand for stolen phones abroad.

In London, mobile-phone thefts account for half of all street robberies, with about 10,000 stolen every month. Last year, about 700,000 phones were reported stolen across the UK.

In and around Edinburgh, more than 5,400 were stolen during 2005-6.

The number of handsets in the UK has spiralled in recent years, from 17 million in 1999 to about 63 million today.

In response to the growing problem, the Home Office and the police created in 2003 the National Mobile Phone Crime Unit (NMPCU), which set up a website called "immobilise".

It allows all owners of mobile phones to register their handset by inputting its unique international mobile equipment identity (IMEI) number, which is similar to a car serial number.

Police forces participating in the scheme are given access to the database of IMEI numbers, allowing them to establish almost instantly if a phone they recover has been stolen.

Thousands of mobile phone-related crime reports are also linked to the website, making it easier for police to catch the thieves. Registered phones which are stolen can be blocked or immobilised, rendering them useless in the UK.

While mobile-phone theft is an "opportunistic" crime, behind the person who steals the handset lies a network of distributors who make millions of pounds by supplying stolen phones to countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, where landline communications are poor and new handsets can cost hundreds of pounds.

About 14 million phones are currently registered on the UK-wide database. Although some of these belong to people in Scotland, the scheme has been of relatively little value to them, because Scots forces have not had access to their details.

Since the scheme was launched, London has recorded a 10.5 per cent fall in mobile phone crime.

A taskforce comprising officers from all eight Scottish forces has been set up to roll out the "immobilise" initiative.

Detective Superintendent Eddie Thomson, who heads the NMPCU, said the scale of the problem was massive.

"Mobile phones stolen in the UK are being exported to every corner of the globe. The immobilise scheme has been hugely successful in London," he said.

Detective Chief Inspector Lesley Boal, of Lothian and Borders Police, is on the taskforce, and said patrol officers across the country would be instructed to check the ownership of phones against the database "where they have reasonable suspicion that a phone has been stolen".

• For details of how to protect your mobile phone, log on to www.immobilise.com