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Iraq sat phone shambles costs UK $1.1m

Huge bill racked up on purloined handsets

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A failure to shut off the service of satellite phones stolen in Iraq has left UK taxpayers almost £600,000 ($1.1m) the poorer.

Light-fingered robbers were able to use the nicked phones for up to a year before Foreign Office officials twigged that anything was amiss.

The crooks went to elaborate lengths to make the most of the phones. The Daily Telegraph reports that the thieves established a premium rate phone line in the South Pacific islands of Wallis and Futuna. Using one of the hi-tech phones to call the premium rate number raked up bills of around £290,000 ($537,000) over just two months, earning crooks a tidy percentage.

The scope of the scam emerged following an investigation by the National Audit Office, the government's spending watchdog, which criticised the Foreign Office for inadequate controls.

Ten satellite phones were dispatched to diplomats in Iraq in September 2003 but staff on the ground weren't told the kit was coming and no provision was made to store phones securely until they were needed.

No records were kept of who collected the phones which, handily from the thieves's point of view, were activated in Britain before they were dispatched to the Middle East.

Three phones went missing in early 2004 but the last of the phones wasn't barred until June 2005. By that stage, crooks had run up a bill of £594,370 ($1.1m) at the expense of the Foreign Office.

A junior official queried the size of the bills as early as September 2004 but nobody took any action, an oversight that wound up costing the British taxpayer a packet. ®

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