ANNAPOLIS – In a crime that underscores the problem of data security in an Information Age, technologically savvy drug dealers are reaching into the airwaves to steal cellular telephone service.
Maryland needs a new law to combat the suddenly prevalent crime, state legislators were told Wednesday.
Barry R. Wood of Cellular One told lawmakers his company has watched fraud in the Baltimore/Washington area increase 250 percent in the past year as phone-service thieves have moved into Maryland from other states.
“In 1994 we employed three people in our fraud department,” Wood said. “Today, we have 21 very busy employees who are dealing with these issues on a case-by-case basis each day.”
Theft of cellular service became rampant in Maryland last year after neighboring states adopted measures against the high-tech crime, Maryland State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell told members of the House Judiciary Committee.
Thieves use a modified police scanner to pick up a mobile phone’s radio signals and capture the unique electronic serial number assigned to the phone by the manufacturer.
The serial number is then implanted into a second phone by means of a personal computer. Unauthorized calls can be made with the second phone for 30 to 40 days before fraud is detected.
Such “cloned” telephones are a favorite tool of drug dealers, who use them to escape wiretaps, traced calls and subpoenas of billing records, police officials and industry representatives testified at the afternoon hearing.
TheyThey seek legislation making the manufacture or sale of a cloned telephone a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill they back would also impose the same punishment on anyone caught possessing a cloned telephone that was used to steal more than $300 in phone service.
Federal law already bars telephone cloning, but U.S. prosecutors hesitate to take cases not involving more than $10,000, a state’s attorney said.
Nationwide last year, fraud resulting from cloned telephones totaled $650 million, a cost that cellular companies absorbed but that ultimately will be paid by consumers in the form of higher prices, another industry representative said.
Tom McClure, director of fraud management for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, said some criminals have switched from dealing drugs to selling cloned telephones because the latter is more lucrative and less dangerous.
McClure said 30 million mobile phones currently in use across the country are vulnerable to being cloned.
But he said the crime will decrease and eventually disappear as the industry switches to digital technology, which allows the encoding of telephone serial numbers. For now, though, there is no adequate technological solution, McClure said. “You have to arrest these people,” he said. -30-