© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
‘SIM Recycling’ – New fast way to incriminate, endanger Nigerian phone users
IN August 2014, Kazeem Biriowo visited sales promotion event organised by the MTN in Ota, Ado/Odo/Ota Local Government Area in Ogun State. Due to the enticing promotional benefits, he bought an MTN SIM card. Right there, he did his Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) registration, data capturing as well as fingerprints.
Surprisingly, months after, a subscriber, who seems to be a Lagos businessman, residing at the Bourdillion called claiming, he is the real owner of the line.
Prior to this time, clients of the businessman were communicating via text messages to the same line, oblivious of the fact that recipient of those messages is not actually their business partner.
This continued for a long time, until he resolved to discard the SIM card for a newly registered one.
“It appears the person is into freight business because his clients sent several credit alerts to the SIM,” Biriowo told The ICIR.
“For instance, someone once sent a message that he has just sent N100, 000 to his (businessman) account as part of N500, 000 payment so far made. So, to avoid impersonation, I decided to forgo the line.”
Inspite of his trouble, Biriowo bought another MTN line.
But, he was shocked to find out the new line he duly registered was also registered with name belonging to another person, after checking through the True Caller, a popular phone application used to verify people’s identity.
“I was surprised to see Nurse Awal,” he said.
Again, just last week someone called him and said, “Mr Man, this is my phone number. At this time, I was furious. So, I responded– Mr Man! You have called the wrong line”, says Biriowo. “He called again but I insisted the line is mine. So, he terminated the call.”
Why phone users may be at risk
Subscribers to the major telecommunication companies were randomly contacted. And findings showed that most of those who did SIM swap have experienced frustration due to SIM recycling capable of exposing users to danger.
On 7th January, Omoyele Sowore, the Sahara Reporters Publisher shared on his timeline how a man, Anthony Okolia was illegally detained for possessing a phone line he purchased years after it was allegedly abandoned by Hanan Buhari, daughter of Nigeria’s President.
It was discovered that the accused had earlier registered the SIM. Fortunately, he was still in possession of the payment receipt.
In fact, Okolia was allegedly detained for 10 weeks but later released through the effort of his lawyer when Buhari’s daughter refused to present herself to prove she is the rightful owner.
The incident generated some controversy. While some questioned legality of SIM swap, others expressed worry over unlawful detainment of the accused persons. There are several other Nigerians who have had similar SIM swap experience but not made their complaints public.
Last year December, Adeleke Adewolu, NCC Executive Commissioner on Stakeholder Management (ECSM) attributed illegal SIM swaps as being responsible for the highest cyber threats recorded in the telecom sector.
But, based on Biriowo’s observation, anyone who buys a phone line which starts with 08033, for instance in 2018 and above could have bought a swapped line. The original owner could be dead or the SIM card stolen, thus such SIM may have been recycled, he suggested.
While this may be entirely true, The ICIR also discovered that mobile phone lines which have been inactive for three months are mostly considered moribund by telecom firms.
It was also discovered that some of the operators would often send a short message to subscribers after the third month to verify the line’s activeness. The concerned persons are then advised to recharge a certain amount; otherwise, the line will be re-cycled.
An alternative scenario is such that mobile SIM cards are mostly produced in batches such as from 0803, 0806, 0813 etc for the MTN. Globacom phone number prefix started with O805, 0807, 0705…etc while Airtel is 0802, 0902, 0701, 0808, 0708, etc. The trend further applies to the other telecom network operators.
As such, while new SIMS are produced, unused ones are recycled but with likely grave consequences to subscribers.
More sordid experience
A journalist who sought anonymity while sharing his experience told The ICIR how he registered his SIM card in Lagos at a roadside outlet believed to be an accredited Airtel agent. He had used the same active SIM for years until he moved to Abuja.
“Those guys captured me. They did my fingerprint and collected every data…” he said.
At the advent of the 4G network, he decides to upgrade his SIM card at the Airtel office situated within the Central Business District (CBD). But he was shocked when he got a surprising response at the counter – his line belongs to someone else.
“When I wanted to change to 4G last month, I went to the Airtel office at Shoprite in Musa Yardua and I was told to write down my name. I did that, but after he checked, I was told it is assigned to another name.
“It is my active line. In fact, I abandoned another line for it. So that’s not possible,” he argued, yet in a state of confusion. But, the telecom operator official affirmed, “that’s what the record shows.” It was same experience with Biriowo, the earlier complainant.
The senior journalist was later advised to re-register the number in his name before he could migrate to 4G. And he was told he would wait another one month before the migration could happen.
I’m not mad…this is my line
On 12th December, this reporter visited the 9mobile office to further verify the process of SIM replacement and verification. From the entrance, he was redirected to a mobile shop operated from a branded Toyota bus parked by the roadside.
In the bus were four specially fabricated seats – facing each other. The officials sat facing the rear of the driver. Beside the driver’s seat at the front is the photocopier. Two customers were seated facing staff of the telecom operators, backing the driver.
“I will like to do SIM replacement,” Shaibu Samson told one of the officials.
“Sorry, we cannot attend to you because that line is not yours”, the attendant responded without checking. It was later The ICIR realised that the Samson had visited a day earlier, but he was told his line belongs to one Ibrahim Abubakar. But he claimed to have used the sim for six years.
“I am not crazy and I am not a blind person. It is mine, and I know what I’m saying,” the subscriber said.
“It got lost and I did SIM replacement. See the SIM pack here,” displaying packs of the network, he previously used for the SIM replacement.
“When I did my first ‘SIM welcome back’ in 2018, there was no issue. It is when I wanted to do the second replacement that they told me the name on the system is not mine.”
Disappointed, he furiously left the bus.
Another SIM registration point by 9Mobile agent became the next option. It was about 100 metres away. But, again, he was turned down and directed to a different office located along Adetokunbo Ademola Crescent, Wuse 2.
However, Samson’s anger grew further.
The ICIR later queried the officials on what could be responsible for such double registration but one of them simply said, “I don’t know.” But he later blamed it on the network.
Again, while the heated argument was on, an unidentified man, who had visited the same agent 24-hours earlier returned to complain that his re-activated line was inactive still.
“See this man,” the agent points at the new visitor, “he came here yesterday. I did his SIM registration. According to him, his line failed to work.”
While battling the new customer, the first complainant was later advised to visit the operator’s main office to register the SIM card in his name, and subsequently return after three weeks for the SIM swap.
What the law says
For almost a decade, the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) campaigned, encouraging mobile phone users to register their SIM cards for the purpose of data capturing and security.
The exercise climaxed at the upsurge of Boko Haram insurgency. But, the process officially ended on June 30, 2013, while that of new SIM users continued.
However, there are provisions of the law which regulates the registration process, determining who should be involved and otherwise.
“A SIM can be replaced if it is faulty, damaged, stolen, lost, obsolete (but eligible for replacement or an upgrade), and any other reasonable legitimate reason or condition necessitating a SIM replacement,” a study of the NCC SIM Registration Guideline revealed.
There was no point where the guideline says an abandoned SIM should be recycled. The regulation does not also specify a particular month an abandoned SIM should be replaced or assigned to other users.
But it is worthy of note that though, Section 4.2 of the guideline empowers telecom operators to reject particular subscribers on selective cases, such issues must be reported to the NCC in 24 hours. Sadly, that was not the case when Samson met with officials of his telecom provider.
He was entirely denied access to officially complain, and by extension share his form with the commission.
“The medium of reporting rejected SIM Replacements would be in the same data dump format utilized for submission of SIM registration details, subject to any modifications the Commission may make from time to time.”
The ICIR also discovered that NCC actually empowers telecom operators to engage ‘licensed’ agents for the purpose of SIM replacement and registration. SIM activation should be ready in two hours but based on findings by this reporter, it does not come up until 24 hours.
Yes – We are licensed by NCC but I was scammed
Edwin Duru, 30, runs a small scale business just opposite the popular Wuse Market, Abuja – the nation’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT). He majors in the sales of SIM cards but later ventured into SIM replacement.
“Do your welcome back MTN, Glo, Airtel, 9mobile registration here,” a medium-sized banner displays at his makeshift office. The banner is tied right to the first two stands of a yellow-coloured table with several SIM cards displayed for sales.
For five years, he had managed the newly registered company, with a makeshift office made of umbrella and two plastic chairs. He had witnessed internet fraud committed by his customers where he personally lost almost N200, 000 on two different occasions.
“The first experience was when I started business newly – that was four years ago and the second one was last year.”
Unknown persons had visited for SIM replacement and before he knew it, his phone was gone. Next thing was to get notified of N2, 000 deduction of data purchase and later, total withdrawal of his cash deposits.
Overwhelmed, he could not immediately provide questions put to him by his bank.
“I called them and they were asking me what was my mother’s maiden name, residential address and other questions but I told them to block it first, these people are withdrawing my money but they insisted. So, I ended the call. That was how my money went. It has happened to me twice.”
“We will only try to be security conscious. All those things are beyond us. Our work is just to do normal SIM registrations and submit your work.”
Meanwhile, findings revealed that registered partners mainly involved in SIM registration and replacement are identified by the telecommunication operators through a WhatsApp group created for such purpose.
The ICIR sighted some of the social media groups recognised by the firms. They include Abuja 9Mobile SIM Registration Agents (SRAs), the MTN SIM registration group comprising of those in Garki and Wuse and Glo group – Globacom Freelancers.
“We are many within Abuja. 9Mobile group has 101 members, 70 in MTN, over 100 on Glo.”
In fact, the groups, it was gathered often undergo regular training offered by the operators only when there is a new software application updated on the SIM registration kits. Other information is mostly shared via the established Whatsapp group.
Funso Aina, MTN spokesperson was however contacted to react to the several predicaments faced by the customers. But he refused to respond to his calls. He later sent a text to the reporter to identify himself but despite the self-introduction in response to his text, he still did not respond to the questions put to him.
24 hours after, he was phoned but he ended several calls put to him.
The Spokesperson for Globacom, Andrew Okele, responded. He advised the reporter to send an email. But, he is yet to respond as at the time of filing this report.
Several efforts to contact 9Mobile spokesperson failed.
Dr. Henry Nkemadu, NCC Director of Public Affairs was contacted via text message. But, he is also yet to respond as well.
Based on this investigation, users are however advised to password their SIM cards for digital security. It is also important for phone users to approach the recognised corporate offices of the telecom operators for successful SIM swaps.