A ROMANIAN crime gang stole almost £44,000 in coins from telephone boxes across the UK during a four-month spree.
The thieves travelled the country targeting British Telecom kiosks and used tools to drill into the side of cashboxes.
Between March 1 and July 28 last year, they made off with a total of £43,975, and caused £26,514 worth of damage to the machines.
Newcastle Crown Court heard today that a total of 316 phone boxes were tampered with, with 54 of them being emptied of cash.
Phoneboxes in Exeter, Bury St Edmunds, Carlisle, Glasgow, Sunderland, Newcastle, Durham, Wetherby, Derby, Oxford, Croydon, Bradford and Plymouth came under attack.
Three of the gang, who were arrested in Sunderland after an operation by Northumbria Police, were today put behind bars, and face automatic deportation when they have completed their sentences.
Gabriel Serghei, 33, and Nicolae Musat, 44 were both jailed for two years, and Robert Ionita, 23, was jailed for 21 months.
The trio, who are of no fixed address, stayed in hotels near the sites of the telephone boxes they planned to target.
They all admitted conspiracy to steal and going equipped for theft.
The court heard the police are still hunting at least two others involved in the scam.
Mr Recorder Barker told the court: “I have little doubt and little hesitation in coming to the conclusion that this is a professional conspiracy.
“It was a commercial operation. It was well planned and it was targeted.
“Phoneboxes are not as important as they once were, but they are, nevertheless, still important, particularly for those who may require then for emergency purposes or find themselves in difficulty.
“You rendered these phone boxes inoperative for a period of time until they were mended.”
The court heard the men were initially arrested in Exeter in June last year travelling in a VW Passat which contained tools, including a drill, three satnav systems, bags of coins and hotel receipts.
They were granted bail pending further investigation, but caught a month later, after an investigation by Northumbria Police, travelling in a Rover motor, containing similar tools and equipment, in Sunderland.
Defence barristers said the three men have families back home and came to the UK with honest intentions to find jobs.