County lines: Call to review 'criminal abuse' of pay-as-you-go phones
The government has been urged to consider imposing restrictions on pay-as-you-go mobile phones to prevent county lines drug gangs using them.
Current rules that allow people to buy the phones anonymously are being exploited by drug dealers, the policing watchdog for England and Wales said.
It called for a Home Office review of the "criminal abuse" of mobile phones.
The Home Office said it was investing £20m to further disrupt county lines activity.
The term "county lines" is used to describe gangs and organised criminal groups distributing drugs from typically larger cities to smaller towns around the country using mobile phones to arrange deals with suppliers and buyers.
There was "little support" from officers for these orders, inspectors found, because dealers can obtain replacement numbers and phones - sometimes referred to as "burners" - "quickly and anonymously".
In one instance, officers told inspectors a drug gang received and shared a new phone number within an hour of the service provider acting on an order.
Former detective Mark Powell, one of the inspectors who worked on the report, told reporters the "impression" from officers they spoke to was that restrictions on buying phones anonymously would be "welcome".
This could involve people registering personal details when buying a mobile phone or replacement SIM card, the report said.
Mr Powell said: "Officers have to resort to lengthy investigations to try to prove who had a phone.
Chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, said: "People regard their communications as a species of privacy that should not be intruded into.
"That's why we say the matter should be considered."
Measures enabling the courts to block individual mobile phone numbers were contained in legislation passed in 2015, when county lines were starting to spread.
It took another two years for the powers to be implemented, by which time the drug gangs had strengthened their grip.
The paperwork involved in applying for the orders was burdensome - fewer than 50 have been granted since then - and police found that when mobile numbers were shut down others were quickly in their place.
Being able to pin a particular phone number to an individual would therefore be a huge advantage for detectives - and not just those investigating drug dealing.
Virtually every criminal conspiracy and serious offence involves the use of mobiles or SIM cards, purchased anonymously.
But the ease and speed at which pay-as-you-go phones can be acquired is big business for retailers and a major attraction for customers, which is why the government is likely to proceed very cautiously before introducing any restrictions.