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, the raiders made stole £43,975 and caused £26,514 of damage to the machines.
Newcastle Crown Court heard that 316 phone boxes were tampered with, including in Sunderland, Durham, Newcastle, Exeter, Bury St. Edmunds, Carlisle, Glasgow, Wetherby, Derby, Oxford, Croydon, Bradford and Plymouth.
Three of the gang, arrested in Sunderland after an operation by Northumbria Police, were yesterday 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.
Robert Ionita, 23, was jailed for 21 months.
The trio, of no fixed address, stayed in hotels near the phone 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.
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.”
Defence barristers said the three men have families back home and came to the UK with honest intentions to find jobs.