Mobile phone thefts surged last year with more than 700,000 handsets stolen, a Home Office report revealed today.The study estimated that the overall number of stolen mobiles was more than double the 330,000 figure officially recorded by police.
And the research showed that children under 15 were the most common targets with up to half a million young people aged between 11 and 15 falling victim to phone theft.
The report comes days after a 19-year-old woman was shot in the head by a mugger in Walthamstow, east London, who was trying to steal her mobile phone.
Today's study added that the typical phone robbers were boys aged 14 to 17, and in five out of seven areas studied the most likely offender was black.
In London seven out of 10 suspected mobile phone robbers was black, while in Birmingham 54% were black and 34% Asian. In Stockport, 76% of suspects were white.
The figures will back a tough Government warning to mobile phone companies to beef up security.
There were an estimated 26,300 mobile phone robberies last year, up five-fold on 1998-99 figures, the study showed.
Overall, mobile phone theft has risen 190% since 1995.
Ministers will be infuriated by the industry's refusal to act when their products are fuelling a steep rise in robberies, thus damaging the Government's record on crime.
Today's research suggests that were it not for mobile phones, street robberies could have levelled off in the last two years.
The Home Office has spent a year trying to persuade the industry to install equipment which allows stolen mobiles to be immobilised.
A Home Office spokesman today named BT Cellnet and Vodafone as the two networks which have failed to agree the new measures, which officials believe could instantly slash the number of robberies and thefts involving phones.
They want companies to introduce measures which allow accounts to be cut off when customers pass on the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number of stolen handsets.
"We are focusing on the IMEI, which is a number that is already programmed into every phone," said a Home Office spokesman.
"Three of the networks, Virgin, One to One and Orange, can already immobilise phones if they are given the number, effectively making it useless.
"BT Cellnet and Vodafone can't do that and are refusing to put the technology in place.
"They are saying it is not worth their while because the next generation of phones are coming along in a couple of years and their customers are not demanding it.
"We think everyone in the industry needs to play their part in preventing their customers becoming victims of crime."
Ministers are still considering whether to make legislation which will force the networks to introduce the anti-theft measures, but the spokesman said new laws would be "a last resort".
Today's report said mobile phone robbery was mainly carried out by male teenagers on other boys their age, and is mainly a black-on-white crime.
Inmates at Feltham young offenders' institution in west London who were interviewed by researchers claimed they regarded choosing women targets as "out of order".
They also said the sell-on value of the new handset was more important than free calls, with each phone reaching between £10 and £60.
The inmates dismissed the idea of "text bombing" stolen phones with endless text messages - as piloted in the Netherlands to deter thieves - explaining that they would simply steal another and count on police not being able to keep up.
Mobile phone thefts are an increasing problem for police in London and are targeted in more than a third of robberies in the capital, where officers have advised people not to make calls in the street.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ian Blair last week said mobile phone robberies in particular were causing grave concern.
Latest figures show a 35% increase in general street crime in London and a 53% rise in robberies at gunpoint, he said.
Ten children were robbed of their mobile phones last Thursday after a trip to see The Lord of the Rings at a cinema in Surrey Quays, south-east London.
The boys and girls aged 10 to 13 were set upon by a group of up to 40 older youths, who threatened the youngsters and then searched them before making off with four mobile phones and their pocket money.
Home Office minister John Denham today visited sixth formers at St Olave's school in Southwark, south-east London, to discuss their experiences of phone-related crime.
"Mobile phones can be an important tool in keeping children safe, but they can also expose young people to the risk of robbery," said the minister.
"It is very important that young people use their phones responsibly and avoid making themselves targets for phone thieves.
"All the pointers suggest that mobile phone thefts are driving the robbery figures upwards and making the increase in robbery greater than it would otherwise be."