Texas targets cell phone use by gangs

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Texas lawmaker said Thursday he plans to target international gangs by going after technology that has kept them a step ahead of law enforcement: prepaid cellular telephones.

State Sen. John Carona introduced a proposal that would require a state-issued ID to buy prepaid cell phones, and retailers to track who is buying them. If it becomes law, Carona's proposal would limit consumers to buying no more than three prepaid cell phones at a time.

Carona, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, said it's time to update a law enforcement approach to gang activity that "hasn't changed much since the days of Elliott Ness and Tommy guns."

"Prepaids are popular with criminals because they are cheap, accessible, untraceable and discardable," said Carona, R-Dallas, during a news conference at Dallas police headquarters.

Under his plan, cell phone makers and service providers would preserve phone records and make them available to police during criminal investigations. Carona said he will introduce the proposal in next year's legislative session.

"These devices are used regularly in the commission of crimes," Carona said. "Criminals have the enormous ability to be able to communicate in an untouchable fashion — and that's unacceptable."

Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle said prepaid cell phones are popular with international gangs because they are difficult to trace back to the original buyer.

"The primary tool they used to communicate among each other is prepaid cell phones," Kunkle said. "And it's made investigation of drug trafficking and street gang criminal activity very difficult and, in many cases, impossible for us."

A lawyer for a company that proclaims itself the nation's largest prepaid cell phone provider said it already cooperates with law enforcement.

"As far as cooperation, we do that now," said Richard Salzman, general counsel for Tracfone Wireless Inc. "We deal with law enforcement all the time."

Salzman said restrictions on buying prepaid cell phones will fall hardest on low-income consumers, the very people for whom prepaid phones were originally intended.

"Prepaid were designed to serve underserved parts of the community," Salzman said. "The poor, the low-income, the no-credit, the elderly. These are customers who, but for prepaid, wouldn't be able to get wireless services."

Tracfone Wireless is a subsidiary of America Mobile SA, the largest provider of wireless services in Latin America. America Mobile is controlled by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.