Prepaid phone register fails to ring home

Pay-as-you-go phones are often seized in criminal investigations Keystone

Government attempts to crack down on criminals by having users of prepaid cell phones register their details have largely fallen on deaf ears.

This content was published on October 12, 2004 - 13:27

According to Switzerland’s main telephone operator, Swisscom, only around 200,000 of its 500,000 prepaid customers have registered ahead of an October 31 deadline.

Under the new rules, people who have bought prepaid phones since November 1, 2002, have until the end of this month to register.

“Once the deadline has passed, the phone will be cut off,” said Pia Colombo, spokeswoman for Swisscom.

“Customers will no longer be able to use their phones. But for a short period they will receive messages reminding them that they need to register.”

Regulations already in place since August mean that anyone buying a new prepaid phone must show a valid identity card or a passport and have their details logged for two years.

Previously, “pay-as-you-go customers” were not required to give their personal details, which prevented the authorities from tracing calls back to them.

The government took action to set up registers after it emerged that senior members of al-Qaeda had used Swiss prepaid mobiles to coordinate their activities.

Deadline approaching

Swisscom has tried to draw customers’ attention to the registration deadline by sending messages to users’ phones and by putting up adverts across the country.

Swisscom is also offering registration services in post offices as well as in its 1,000 retail outlets.

Orange and Sunrise, the other two main mobile phone operators in Switzerland, have also been offering a registration service in post offices since August.

“We have already carried out more than 100,000 registrations for [these] two mobile phone operators,” said Swiss Post.

According to Orange, registration will be possible after the end of October.

“Customers who have not registered their phone after that date, will still be able to use their cell phone, but there will be a message on their cell phone asking them to register,” Orange spokeswoman Marie-Claude Debons told swissinfo.

Crimes

But some law enforcement officials remain unconvinced that the registration scheme will bear fruit in the fight against crime.

According to the Federal Statistics Office, there are around 2.3 million unregistered prepaid phones acquired before November 2002, which do not fall under the new regulations.

In addition, under the new rules, customer data is destroyed after two years, which is likely to create further problems.

“Criminals can just wait two years before using their prepaid phone,” said Beat Künzli, Zurich’s deputy prosecutor specialising in drug offences and organised crime, in an interview with the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”.

“They will then no longer be registered and can use their phones anonymously.

“Furthermore, criminals are easier to identify via voice recognition than a prepaid phone.”

Prove its worth

However, Hansjürg Wiedmer, spokesman for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, believes the new system will prove its worth.

“The registration allows us to find evidence for prosecuting crime and terrorist activities,” he said in an interview with the NZZ.

“We can narrow the net in which potential perpetrators may get caught.”

But Künzli says criminals have already found ways to bypass the mobile phone crackdown, creating further headaches and costs for the authorities.

“Since registration was made compulsory at the end of July, perpetrators often use foreign prepaid cell phones,” he said.

“And since we do not know which mobile network they use, we need to monitor the networks of Swisscom, Sunrise or Orange, which causes an enormous increase in costs.”

Mobile phone companies estimate that the cost of the registration scheme will be in the region of SFr30-50 million ($24-40 million).

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Customers possessing a prepaid cell phone bought since November 1, 2002, are required to register with the mobile operators by October 31.

After that date, unregistered cell phones will be cut off.

But less than half of the Swisscom customers who acquired a prepaid phone after November 2002 have registered their cell phone.

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