Before the arrival of mobile phones in the early 1980s, phone crime was mainly a white-collar offence. A physics teacher at my school hacked telephone exchanges. He and his friends made free phone calls around the world until eventually they were caught. Some pupils were impressed. Phone crime today is synonymous with street crime: young thugs stealing Nokias and Motorolas from victims usually younger than themselves. A much-talked-about Home Office report said the phenomenon had become an epidemic. It said 470,000 mobile phones were stolen last year, with 3,000 a month in London alone—substantial increases from previous years. Tony Blair, David Blunkett, and police chiefs made speeches saying mobile phone theft would become a government priority. The arrest and punishment of mobile phone thieves would lead to a reduction in all street crimes, a policy reminiscent of the “broken windows” approach adopted by New York City in the 1990s. If you punish young offenders for breaking windows, so the theory goes, you halt their progress towards more serious crimes.
The judiciary has also responded. Earlier this week, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, instructed judges to impose harsher sentences on anyone found guilty of mobile phone theft—a mandatory jail sentence of 18 months, but five years if violence was involved. Judge Valerie Pearlman gave 23-year-old Dean Healey a four-year prison sentence for robbing 16-year-old Lee Staples of his phone in Streatham High Road last year, and for punching him in the face. Presumably, that punch wasn’t considered by Judge Pearlman worthy of the full five years demanded by Lord Woolf.
Yet the report that has provoked these political and judicial initiatives is not a definitive survey, and the evidence and conclusions about mobile phone theft contained in its 100 pages are often ambiguous. For one thing, it admits to ignorance of the scale of the problem: “The number of phones currently being stolen is unknown.” That’s because there are no definitive figures about any aspect of mobile phone theft, because police forces don’t keep full records. Flu and foot-and-mouth statistics are more accurately reported. So are incidents of shoplifting, which reveal that 35 percent of teenagers stole something from a shop last year. In the absence of definitive statistics, the Home Office bases its report on estimates that are themselves based on previous crime surveys. Other information was provided by just six of England Wales’s 43 police forces, as well as by a number of inmates at Feltham, the notorious jail for young offenders.
Mobile phone theft may be on the rise, but the facts presented in the report suggest a more complicated picture. For example, the report fails to disprove claims made by telephone companies, such as Cellnet, that 60 percent of mobile phones reported as stolen haven’t in fact been stolen at all. People fraudulently claim their phones have been stolen in order to get them replaced by newer ones free of charge, which some telephone companies undertake to do. But cases of fraud are not comprehensively recorded either. Since telephone companies make most of their money from their customers’ use of mobile phones for making calls, they tend to take them at their word and give them new phones, rather than launch costly and probably futile inquiries into suspected fraud.
Contrary to what the Government may believe, mobile phone theft is not just indicative of street crime. Only a fifth of mobile thefts are committed in street muggings. The vast majority of mobile phones are stolen from houses or cars, along with whatever other valuable objects the thieves can find in them. If the Government’s goal is to catch petty offenders before they go on to more serious crimes, such as burglary, then the evidence suggests many mobile phone thieves have already graduated to the next level. While the police go about their arrests and as judges hand out their tougher sentences, the Government, the judiciary, and the police have asked telephone companies and phone manufacturers to make mobiles more secure and less attractive. A more secure mobile phone is curious concept. How do you make a piece of technology that’s been designed to be easy to carry and easy to use more secure? The answer, of course, is you can’t, unless phone makers can invent a phone clever enough to know when it’s been stolen and dial 999 to tell the police what’s happened.
It would seem just as impossible to make mobile phones less attractive to teenagers. It would be easier to turn them off Britney Spear than to cure them of their passion for text-messaging. Even the Home Office report illustrates the extent of the mobile phone’s popularity among the young. It quotes the “Feltham boys”, as it touchingly calls the offenders in Britain’s youth jail, as saying that mobile phones “were an indispensable social crutch”. “Their loss of phones in custody was said to be one of the worst elements of the deprivation of liberty,” it said. If that is so, then what will be the first thing they will try to acquire on getting out of prison? A new mobile phone, of course. Until the scale of mobile phone theft is fully known, and instances of fraud are separated from instances of theft, a strategy that makes its suppression the key to reducing street crime will be misconceived.