Dutch police fight mobile phone theft with SMS bombs

After a user reports their GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) handset stolen, the police start sending out one SMS (Short Message Service) text message to the phone every three minutes: "This handset was nicked, buying or selling is a crime. The police."

"We hope this will make mobile phones an unattractive loot," said Elly Florax, head of communications for the Amsterdam-Amstelland police force.

The deluge of messages is sent out using a computer system that was especially designed for the police, said Florax. If other police forces want to try it, they are welcome to, she added.

Mobile phone theft is rising rapidly in Amsterdam. In January, 453 cases of street robbery were reported, three-quarters of which involved mobile phones, according to a police statement. In January last year, the police received 268 reports of street robbery.

"We have a real GSM theft problem. Perpetrators think it's no big deal -- they just go get a new GSM, but a mugging is more serious than shoplifting," said Florax, noting that the police are increasingly successful in catching handset thieves. So far this year 150 arrests have been made.

Outwitting criminals who take out the phone's SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card, the police take advantage of the handset's IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number. Using this hardware identification number, the police can track down what mobile phone number is being used on the phone; this number is stored on the SIM card. Once the number is known, it's bombs away.

"It is very true that a lot of mobile phones get stolen. This appears to be a serious attempt to make it more complicated to sell a stolen mobile phone," said Carla van Lomwel, spokeswoman for KPN Mobile, the Netherlands' largest mobile phone operator.

Besides "SMS bombs," the GSM theft-fighting effort includes a promotions team that will hand out flyers on public transportation and at schools. To interest teenagers -- heavy users of mobile phones -- a "GSM prevention song" by Dutch rap artists has been recorded.