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Mobile operators baulk at phone-card deadline

All prepaid phone users in Switzerland will have to give their details (Keystone Archive)

Swiss telephone operators say new rules obliging them to register all users of prepaid cell phones are presenting big challenges.

The government ordered firms to create such registers after it emerged that militants involved in the September 11 attacks used phones purchased in Switzerland.

By the end of October, telephone companies are obliged to register the details of all customers who have bought prepaid mobile phones since November 1, 2002.

The government is also insisting that from August anyone buying a prepaid phone must show a photo ID and have their details logged for two years.

Many mobile-phone customers are billed to their homes, but pay-as-you-go phones allow callers to remain anonymous, preventing the authorities from tracing calls back to them.

Investigators believe al-Qaeda militants involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States communicated with each other using prepaid phones purchased in Switzerland.

Switzerland’s main phone company, Swisscom, is already registering all new prepaid users, while competitors Orange and Sunrise are taking voluntary registrations until August 1, the official deadline.

Time pressure

But Orange and Sunrise are complaining that the new ruling does not give them enough time to register all prepaid mobile owners. They say some users may find their phones cut off because they haven’t been registered in time.

"We are trying to do this in easiest possible way for our customers, but it’s a big challenge," said Orange spokeswoman Therese Wenger.

Swisscom said it had 3.7 million customers and hundreds of thousands had been using prepaid phones. Finding and registering them would be costly and difficult, Christian Neuhaus told swissinfo.

“We haven’t begun to track down the existing customers, and we don’t even know exactly how we’re going to do it – except that we’ll be using a text message,” he said.

According to the Federal Statistics Office, there were almost 2.3 million users of prepaid phones in Switzerland prior to November 1, 2000. By the end of last year that figure had risen to almost 2.6 million.

Given client anonymity, the phone companies anticipate problems in passing on information about the new ruling to those customers affected.

They say many mobile phone users don’t read text messages, or have their phones switched off for long periods.

Mixed reaction

Reaction to the idea of a register of prepaid phone users has been mixed.

Zurich Prosecutor Renato Walty says criminals could supply false identity papers or use foreign Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards.

"The new regulation was presented to us as a solution, but I doubt it will be," said Walty.

But St Gallen Prosecutor Thomas Hansjakob says the register will make life easier for police.

He says cell phone surveillance is crucial in investigating cases of narcotics, theft and organised crime.

It is made more difficult because criminals change their SIM cards frequently, and police can’t afford the time and expense involved in extending permits to continue surveillance, he adds.

The prosecutor says that, in Germany, registration has led to SIM cards being changed less frequently.

"I don’t expect to catch a really big fish this way. But the rules can prevent dealers, terrorists or other criminals from changing SIM cards every two weeks,” Hansjakob said.

“That would be very helpful to us.”

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

As of August 1, new prepaid phone users must register personal information with their phone company, just like those billed at home.
And by November 1, phone services must register the details of clients who have bought prepaid phones since November 2002.
Cardholders may contact their phone service to supply the necessary information.

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In brief

The Swiss have imposed registration requirements to cooperate in the global fight against terrorism.

Justice ministry officials believe senior members of al-Qaeda used prepaid cell phones containing Swiss SIM cards.

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