A case for a national prepaid cellphone registry

Most scams through telephone systems are occurring through the use of prepaid devices. It’s easy to see why. As of today, any person can walk to a convenience store and purchase a prepaid cellphone without any precondition such as a valid ID verification. This means that there’s no record of the owner in case law enforcement needs that information. This is not acceptable.

For years, police departments across that nation have acknowledged that this is a growing problem and still, there’s no national prepaid telephone registry.

In Puerto Rico, I pushed hard for the creation of such registry. Against all odds, including heavy lobbying efforts by the national mobile telephone companies, we managed to pass legislation that eventually became Public Law 280.

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The current law states that all commercial establishments that sell a prepaid mobile unit will be required to register it at the Government’s Telecommunication Regulatory Board using the name and physical address of the buyer within 30 days following the acquisition of the unit.

Failure to comply with the statute would mean the imposition of a trade sanction up to 250 dollars per telephone unit.

Despite the need for this type of registry, telephone companies have prevented the enacting of the law. Citing privacy issues, the mayor wireless carriers, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint, band together and filed an injunction in the Puerto Rico federal court seeking a reprieve from the law arguing that to require a formal Identification Card violated a person’s right to privacy, particularly those law-abiding citizens who need the anonymity for security reasons, for example, battered women and crime victims.

They do not care that prepaid handsets, which allow users to buy minutes without a contract and often recharge minutes over the Internet, are the preferred option for the criminals and that our local police receive more than 5,000 fraud complaints a year regarding the use of prepaid phones and that there’s little they can do because the trails end at the store, leaving the victims even more insecure.

The reality is that phone companies care more about losing sales than constitutional issues, and certainly they do not care about the safety and peace of mind of the people.

I can’t imagine any person, wanting to purchase a prepaid phone for lawful reasons  who would balk at the idea because of the ID requirement.

In Greece and Mexico, countries where extortion through mobile phone is also on the rise, have since 2009 designed laws to create such registries. Why not in the United States?

I urge the Congress to act immediately and begin a public discussion regarding this matter during the next few months. We can’t wait, the people need security. The people need the prepaid phone registry.

Rodríguez-Miranda is a member of the Puerto Rico House of Representaives.