Post-SIM registration SMS fraud, poor GSM services mount

AGAINST the robust opposition to it, hinged on the fact that the service providers had then taken up the challenge of registering all active Subscriber Identification Module (SIM), the last National Assembly granted N6 billion to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to register the nation’s 90 million (approximately 70 million when the SIM registration was launched) subscribers on the Global System of Mobile Communications networks in the country.

Appearing before the defunct House Committee on Communications in Abuja in July last year, Executive Commissioner, NCC, Bashir Gwandu, argued, quite convincingly, that the lack of subscriber identification database had far-reaching security implications and was being exploited by unscrupulous individuals to perpetrate crime and related illegal activities in the country.

But more than a year after and despite the capture of millions of subscribers’ personal information, including photographs and fingerprints, the much-touted benefits in terms of curtailing crimes committed through the use of the GSM networks appear far off in Nigeria.

Also, while the service providers continue to get more subscribers on their networks, stakeholders have expressed concern that the GSM firms pursue this end aggressively at the expense of quality services. Quite tellingly, it is no use calling the well-known Customer Care lines of some of these service providers as one would either be cut off after a short pre-recorded voicemail or treated to a repeated barrage of the networks’ audio advertisements and promotional jingles.

While there has been astronomical growth in active subscribers base on all the networks, operators are yet to match the growth in subscribers with adequate and timely response to customers’ complaints. According to some stakeholders in the sector, the reason for the lull in this area of customer service is that there is still a wide margin between the ratio of total subscribers in the country and the facilities put in place by the operators to solve speedily, customer complaints.

More worryingly is the sustained, even growing, use of the major networks to co-ordinate and execute crimes like kidnapping, advance fee fraud (419) and, of late, terrorism in the country. This, according to telecoms experts, ought not to be if providers have simply deactivated all unregistered SIMs in the country as the NCC had warned they would do post-SIM registration and harmonisation, as it could be conjectured that the lines being so abused are unregistered.

Investigations by The Guardian have also revealed that some of the service providers, for reasons best known to them, appear unco-operative in helping to solve crimes being committed using their networks by unmasking criminal elements through the captured subscribers’ data.

For instance, a fraudulent SMS message informing subscribers that they have won N2 million “in the on-going recharge and win promotion” is currently in circulation on the Airtel network, which asks recipients to call the service provider’s correct Customer Line, 111 or the phone number 08022008705. Recipients who called the second number are told to send recharge cards,  their bank details or come to Wuse 2, Abuja, to redeem the prize.

The Guardian called the number and a husky, sleepy male voice confirmed that the promo was genuine. The Guardian also alerted an Airtel Customer Care Agent, who identified himself as Mojeed, to the obvious fraud, who proffered the stock response that subscribers should disregard such fraudulent SMS as Airtel does not inform winners of its promos “that way.” Mojeed claimed to have reported the alert to his superiors for prompt action but was evasive about using the SIMs database to track down the fraudster and promised to get back to The Guardian. Three weeks later, he has not.

In a recessed economy as ours, some are won’t to take the bait. Mr. Tajudeen Adele, an Airtel subscriber based in Lagos, said he got a text message that he had won N2 million in one of the network’s promos and that he should send N4,000 recharge cards so that it could be processed.

“Of course, I complied because I had actually participated in one of the promos. I played along and waited to get confirmation for what I won and nothing was heard since then. I called Airtel’s customer care line and no response. They were only singing hymns to my ear. I did that for close to a week and I got frustrated and eventually gave up the chase.”

Apparently aware of the fraudulent promo win message, Etisalat sent an SMS alerting its subscribers to it and dissociating the service provider from the scam.

Besides frequent cases of drop calls, unclear reception and wrong connections across networks, subscribers are also of late being “harassed” with unsolicited calls from strange numbers, which they lose their prepaid airtime to when they pick up the call. On Glo Mobile, the strange number is 4040 while on Airtel they are 547 or 5471030345 and 5473336467.

When The Guardian called Airtel’s Customer Service line to complain, a female official claimed the subscriber must have signed to the service, which is untrue in this case, and directed that he should de-subscribe by texting to a particular charge-free number, which also turned out to be a lie as N100 was promptly deducted from the subscriber’s airtime!

Eleven calls placed to the Glo Mobile Customer Care line over three weeks, with one of them lasting 30 minutes, were only either cut off after less than two minutes or went on endlessly with promo and advertising jingles playing on cue one after the other.

A Lagos-based Glo Mobile subscriber who bought the network’s N500 recharge card several weeks back and sent same to his mother in the village, could not also get Glo Customer Care  till date to confirm the claim by a neighbour of his mother that “the card has been used by another subscriber.” The Glo card number in this case is 46873 09389 89097; serial number, 250614617512501; and batch number 1468071143216125.

A senior telecoms expert, who does not want his name in print and a subscriber of both MTN and Etisalat networks also claimed to have experienced a similar problem “without any response till today.”

Reacting, a senior official of Airtel, who prefers anonymity, disclosed that the network is awash complaints over fraudulent SMS on the network.

He added: “We have said times without number that if anybody wins any of our promos, we don’t send SMS to such people, rather we call them. There is a particular number we use in calling, which is 080219000000, anything outside this, is not from us.

“At different Telecoms Consumer Parliaments, we have stated that we don’t send text, but call winners with that number.

“On the issue of non-response on customer care line, I think that is not peculiar to us alone, but officially, I will say, it could have been network problem, because as I speak to you we have upgraded that facility seriously and we are still investing in that area.”

According to him, by the time the harmonisation of SIM is completed by the NCC, “I believe this country would be able to tackle the various security threats threatening the existence of Nigeria presently.”

General Manager, Corporate Affairs, MTN, Funmilayo Omogbenigun, said: “With respect to the issue of fraudulent text messages, MTN has continuously sensitised its subscribers through various media platforms, to be wary of texts or  e-mails that  request  money or recharge cards in order to claim prizes purportedly won in  promos or reward schemes.

“As a rule, MTN does not send text messages to winners of its promos/rewards neither does it demand consideration of any kind as a condition for claiming prizes. MTN contacts all winners of MTN promos or reward schemes via a voice call through our dedicated 180 customer service line. In addition, MTN routinely publishes the names of winners on the company’s corporate website and winners are usually invited to presentation ceremonies with the full complement of the media present, at accredited MTN offices or venues.”

She stressed that ”the registration of SIMs serves a number of useful purposes, including a deterrent to certain levels of criminal activity.”

In his reaction, NCC’s Head of Media and Spokesman, Mr. Rueben Muoka, said the commission had times without number told subscribers to desist from entertaining text messages they were aware they never participated in.

Muoka said: “It is difficult to stop such fraud because it can come in different ways beyond the networks, including Skype and others due to the hi-tech nature of the industry. This challenge is not limited to Nigeria. Subscribers should call their networks to confirm to avoid falling victims. Where the operator could not be reached, the NCC’s customer complaints lines, which are 08000myconsumer or 08000callncc, are toll free lines that subscribers can get faster response from. This, the commission had stressed at different telecoms consumer parliaments we have had.”

The NCC spokesman assured that the collected SIM data would be deployed to tackle current and future security challenges in the country.

According to him, “the harmonisation period presently had no end time in sight. This is necessary to ensure also that we register all eligible subscribers and we have reiterated it times without number that the benefits of this SIM registration far-outweigh the disadvantages. Aside using the SIM registration data to tackle the present security challenges in the country, it would also give us a platform to know the actual lines we have in this country and this, of course, will aid investments.

“The harmonisation period involves the cleanup of the data and proper documentation and anybody who failed to register would definitely be disconnected. Who knows, such a person might be planning evil, hence he refused to register his SIM. However, for now, nobody can give a definite date to end the harmonisation period. At the beginning, we have told the operators that they must send their data to us and presently that is what this harmonisation period is all about. There won’t be duplication of data; I can assure you that because we have mapped out strategies for a codified result.”

For added security measures, Gwandu recently disclosed that the NCC “plans to issue subsidy to telecommunications operators to install equipment on every mast and tower that could be used for triangulating between sites in order to identify real-geographical location of both GPS and None GPS-enabled mobile handsets.”

Gwandu stated that in addition to the triangulation project, all GPS-enabled handsets could also be tracked by low earth orbit satellites. He further stated that there are other equipment that could be deployed to tract and identify the locations of handsets being used to solicit for ransom.

According to him, “once ownership of numbers can be identified, handsets can be tracked, and their geographical location becomes identifiable, then any call made to solicit for ransom, for instance, will help to locate the kidnappers.”

In addition to this, he said, the NCC has initiated “a project that will block stolen handsets once they are reported as being stolen. The project will also be helpful in stopping criminals from using snatched handsets in perpetrating such act.”

In a recent interview, National President, National Association of Telecom Subscribers, Deolu Ogunbajo, while appraising customer care experience on the networks, said: “If there is any major excruciating experience being faced by subscribers in the country, aside the evidently intermittent poor quality of service still noticed on the networks, poor customer care attendance has remained a cankerworm in the operators’ quest of delivering the best of services in this part of the world.”

Also, in an interview with The Guardian, former President, Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, said subscribers who fell prey to fraudulent text messages should be asked “what competition they participated in that would have resulted in such a message? I detest this get-rich-quick syndrome. You want money for doing nothing! This is greed. Where is the money coming from? Who generated it? Subscribers should authenticate such ‘games’ with the operators and with the NCC.”

Ekuwem, one of the proponents of the SIM registration, said the exercise “when duly completed, would for sure check telecoms-based or telecom space-facilitated criminal activities like kidnapping, abduction, terrorism and 419, among others.”

He added: “Can you imagine the frustration of a police officer pleading on phone with kidnappers who are demanding ransom before releasing a victim? The phone SIM number used by the kidnappers could not be matched with a uniquely identified individual. This applies to militants, terrorists, those who make threat calls or send threat text messages to people. No country can progress that way.



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