The congestion charge has sparked a dramatic rise in the number of car registration plates being stolen in Barnet, as motorists try to avoid the cost of driving into central London, it was claimed this week.

Figures released by the London Assembly reveal that this type of crime has exploded in Barnet over the last two years, rising from zero in 2003 to 435 last year a pattern which is replicated across the capital. The congestion charge was introduced on February 17, 2003, a year in which only 19 number plate thefts were reported in London.

In 2004, the figure climbed to 5,492 and last year 8,763 thefts were recorded, 461 times higher than two years previously.

Angie Bray, the Conservative London Assembly member who uncovered the figures, believed the timing of the increase is more than just a coincidence.

"We had a suspicion that number plate crime was increasing because of the congestion charge these figures clearly prove that," said the Tories' spokeswoman on the congestion charge. "People are clearly seeing the value of stealing other people's number plates as a way of getting around the charge, and this is something Ken Livingstone must address."

The trend has not gone unnoticed by Barnet police who introduced a new scheme in September 2004 to deal with the problem.

Motorists who have been victims of this crime are now being asked to bring their cars to Colindale police station, in Aerodrome Road, for fingerprinting and forensic examination.

A police spokeswoman said: "Having identified this as a problem, we must now seek to redress it."