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Inside Moves To Thwart Pre-registered SIM Crimes

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To reduce and possibly eliminate the various security challenges occasioned by cases of fraudulently-activated Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards in the country, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has been exploring different regulatory interventions and striking collaborations with necessary agencies and stakeholders. CHIMA AKWAJA reports.

In order to ensure security and protect consumers of telecoms services, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has continued to robustly engage various stakeholders in the country towards curbing the dangers posed by cases of pre-registered and improperly-registered Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards being use to commit crimes in the country.

A pre-registered SIM card is a fraudulently-activated or improperly-registered SIM card, whose registration runs foul of the regulatory requirements as stipulated by the Commission. Users of such SIM cards do so either out of ignorance or as a deliberate intent to commit crimes.

While the Commission has developed the Telephone Subscribers Registration Guidelines 2011 and a stringent SIM Replacement Procedures to protect telecoms consumers, the sale, purchase and use of pre-registered SIM cards are still being witnessed in some corridors across the country.

Therefore, the Commission’s move to curb the ugly trend, which constitutes grave dangers to individuals and a potential threat to national security of the country, has necessitated the continuous stakeholder engagements in the industry and collaborations with other agencies of government.

Collaboration with agencies, stakeholders

Apart from constant enforcement activities carried out by the Commission’s Compliance Monitoring and Enforcement (CME) team, which has resulted in securing convictions against more than 200 individuals arrested for indulging in sales of pre-registered SIM cards, NCC has, so far, partnered a number of government agencies/organisations with a view to ridding the economy of this scourge.

Such government agencies include the Office of National Security Adviser (ONSA), the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the Nigeria Police Force, the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), the judiciary, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), telecom consumers, among others. This is in addition to ongoing consumer awareness programmes across the six geo-political zones of the country to sensitise the consumers on dangers of patronising pre-registered SIM cards.

According to the Commission, due to fraudulently-activated SIM cards, many genuine subscribers have become victims of armed robbery, kidnappings and financial crimes or SIM swap fraud, requiring concerted efforts to address the menace.

To date, the Commission has had several meetings and sensitisation workshops with different stakeholder groups across the industry at different points in time. Flowing from these consultations and the extensive activities of the NCC, the Commission has issued several directions to the MNOs and imposed various sanctions on them at different times.

For instance, following several reports on the preponderance of pre-registered and improperly-registered SIM cards in the market and several challenges raised by the security agencies on difficulties in tracking criminals using improperly-registered SIM cards, the Commission met with all relevant stakeholders in 2017 to set up an inter-agency Task Force to address the menace.

In September 2018, the Commission coordinated a meeting to bring MNOs and the NSCDC together to help drive enforcement against agents involved in the release of fully-activated SIM cards from the MNOs side. This engagement and others have produced key resolutions all aimed at sanitising the industry of pre-registered SIM cards.

Stringent SIM Replacement procedures

As a proactive measure, the Commission had, at as 2017, came up with a SIM replacement guideline which makes the process of replacing lost, stolen or damaged SIM cards more stringent in order to protect telecommunications consumers.

While speaking recently on reason for such stringent conditions, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Commission, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, said before replacing a SIM card, consumers are required to identify themselves properly through court affidavit, national identification card (or other valid IDs), SIM pack, among other requirements, saying this is to ensure that telecom subscribers are well protected from being victims of SIM swap fraud.

According to him, at times, a subscriber might be having issues with his or her phone number, thinking that it is a network issue. “Unfortunately, by the time the subscriber discovered what is happening, money would have been fraudulently taken out of his or her bank account. SIM swap or replacement has a lot of issues attached to it because, often times, a lot of people who are not theowners of some numbers do SIM swap at various customer centres of the service providers.”

Danbatta said there have been cases of fraudulent activities done on people’s bank accounts as a result of SIM swap and the victims often complain to the Commission, expecting that NCC will compensate them. “To stop this SIM swap fraud, the Commission, in 2017, developed guidelines on SIM replacement, which sets water-tight rules for telecoms consumers to replace their SIM card when there is a need for it.”

While noting that the regulatory body has observed that consumers often frown at being asked to bring court affidavit, national identification card (or other valid IDs), SIM pack, among other requirements, Danbatta explained that the likelihood by subscribers to think that network providers are putting them through stress to have their SIM replaced is also possible.

“But what telecoms consumers should know is that they must appreciate the fact that information being required from them is to establish that anybody coming for SIM swap proves that the number requested to be swapped belongs to him/her. In this case, we enjoin consumers to immediately report to their respective banks to block their accounts or place a notice ‘no withdrawal’ on such account linked to the stolen, damaged or lost SIM cards,” Danbatta advised.

Meanwhile, industry observers agree that the issues concerning subscriber registration or re-registration are central to national security and thereby requires severe regulatory framework to keep it under firm control as well as ensuring a high level of compliance, which is a routine exercise by the CME team of the Commission.

Buttressing the Commission’s initiative, the President, Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. Olusola Teniola, has said at a forum that the stringent measures adopted by the NCC should be appreciated by the consumers against backdrop of the danger posed by a loose or casual SIM card registration and re-registration process raising all sorts of concerns in the country.

Dealing with SIM Swap fraud

It is instructive that one of the fallouts of fraudulently-activated SIM cards is the SIM fraud. SIM fraud, which is also aided by the use of some software technology, to commit crimes have made many unsuspecting bank customers to lose their hard-earned mony to SIM fraudsters.

SIM fraud is fueled by indulgence of criminally-minded individuals who engage in illegal SIM swap. Today, the SIM Swap fraud trend becomes more prevalent because their mobile numbers are directly linked to their bank accounts.

It is trite today that through their SIM cards inserted into their mobile devices and even through online platforms, apps installed on their phones and the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) code, consumers can carry out financial transitions without having to physically visit their bank branches.

In its usual proactive and consultative approach to handling industry issues, therefore, the Commission, in January this year, held a stakeholder forum on financial fraud using telecoms platforms in Abuja. The event, which featured participants from CBN, MNOs, the banks, law enforcement agencies and the consumer groups, was aimed at furthering inclusive discourse on how to proffer solutions to the issue of pre-registered and improperly-registered SIM cards being used to defraud bank customers.

Speaking at the financial fraud forum, Danbatta said that despite advances in technology, human intervention was still required to prevent SIM swap fraud.

According to him, controls and processes by network operators have, to a degree, failed and led to instances of human error in retail branches in distributing SIM cards, noting that banks were still trying to find effective ways of identifying when a customer’s mobile number has been fraudulently swapped and ported onto a new device.

“With fraudsters continuing to exploit these weaknesses, putting better authentication processes in place is vital. Of course, consumers have a responsibility to be vigilant and take their own precautions as well,” he said.

The financial fraud forum subsequently produced a 13-point communique, whose implementation by the Commission, MNOs, the banks, the consumers, law enforcement agents and other concerned stakeholders will help to encourage proper SIM cards registration, diligent adherence to SIM swap procedures by the MNOs and their agents, towards preventing further losses incurred by unsuspecting subscribers/bank customers through SIM swap fraud..

Nationwide sensitisation programme

Unrelenting in its quest to tackle the problem, the Commission, through its CME team, has commenced a nationwide sensitisation programme that will hold across the six geo-political zones in the country to educate stakeholders, especially telecoms consumers, on the dangers of pre-registered SIM cards.

The sensitisation programme, which already held in Enugu for the South-East on Thursday, April 2, 2019 and Nasarawa for the North Central on Thursday April 11, 2019, will be hosted in South-West, North-East, South-South and North-West geo-political zones in the coming weeks.

Speaking during the Enugu edition of the programme, the Executive Commissioner, Stakeholder Management, Mr. Sunday Dare, stressed the importance of educating all stakeholders on the dangers of pre-registered SIM cards.

According to him, “the availability of improperly-registered SIM cards in any corner of Nigeria is a threat to the security of all of us. Such SIM cards make it possible to commit financial crimes whose victims are ordinary hardworking citizens like you and I.

“Also, pre-registered and fraudulently- activated SIM cards, if left unchecked, make it difficult for our law enforcement agents to apprehend persons involved in major criminal activities and they can be used in the perpetration of horrible crimes such as terrorism, kidnapping and similar felonies, making suspect virtue untraceable.”

In the meantime, Dare said the Commission is in the process of sponsoring legislation at the National Assembly to directly criminalise certain SIM registration infractions and thereby deterring persons wishing to commit such infractions.

Need for increased collaborations with NCC

While the efforts of the Commission, as exemplified in all the afore-mentioned regulatory interventions, have been commendable, stakeholders have called for effective collaboration of other government agencies and concerned stakeholders with the NCC in order to support the telecoms regulator’s drive at curbing and possibly eliminating the scourge of pre-registered and improperly-registered SIM cards in the country.

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