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People stopped by the police in parts of London are having their phones scanned and instantly checked against a national database to determine whether they are stolen.

The on-the-spot checks, reminiscent of Police National Computer (PNC) checks for stopped vehicles, are being trialled by officers in Ealing and Bromley.

A handheld wireless device called Apollo scans the IMEI barcode, usually found underneath a phone's battery*, and runs the number against the National Mobile Property Register (NMPR), a privately-run database that styles itself "the PNC of property". It gathers data on stolen property from police, insurers, business and the public.

A Met spokesman said the device was merely a new tool officers could use when they stop and search suspects that would free control room staff from running IMEI checks manually.

The development may, however, cause alarm among campaigners and politicians, who accuse the Met of abusing stop and search powers in recent years, particularly section 44 of the Terrorism Act. It does not require police to suspect an offence before they stop members of the public.

Earlier this summer, the Ealing Borough Intelligence Unit's Apollo trial motivated a crackdown which saw 490 stolen phones recovered from homes and second hand shops, but mostly during stop and search.

Many stolen mobile phones are now destined for export, as technical measures adopted by UK operators mean virtually all are blocked from use here within 48 hours.

The Met spokesman said it was likely Apollo will be rolled out to more London boroughs, however. British Transport Police have also recently invested in the device, which is manufactured by Southampton-based firm Radio Tactics. ®

*Of course, that means mobile phone thieves could easily defeat Apollo by sticking to iPhones. Or on non-Jesus phones, as criminal mastermind commenters point out, peel off the barcode sticker under the battery.

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