updated 2/24/2004 8:32:31 PM ET 2004-02-25T01:32:31

Seven of the world's biggest mobile phone makers have agreed to make changes to handset designs to combat soaring rates of wireless-related crime, an industry group announced Tuesday.

Nokia, Motorola, Siemens, Sony Ericsson, NEC, Panasonic and Sagem have signed on to an initiative to hardwire codes called IMEIs — or International Mobile Equipment Identities — into the circuitry of their handsets, the GSM Associated said.

Codes belonging to stolen cell phones could then be posted on an international database. Wireless service providers who join the initiative could then use the blacklist to block any stolen phone connecting to their networks.

So far, 24 mobile operators have signed on, Rob Conway, chief executive of the GSM Association, told a keynote session at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, southeastern France.

Mobile phones already carry IMEIs, but the codes can often be reprogrammed by thieves before being resold.

Crime rates linked to mobile phones have risen sharply across Europe, Asia and North America in recent years.

In Britain, where a special police unit was recently set up to deal with the problem, official figures show one in every two street crimes involves a mobile phone.

And GSM Association spokesman Ian Volans said there were increasing signs that mobile phone theft was becoming a major activity for international organized crime.

The trade group said it was encouraging more of its service provider members to join the initiative.

"As soon as you have all the operators in one country running it, it a major disincentive for the casual thief," Volans said. "Taking it global would be a serious deterrent to organized crime."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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