Call Masking: A Worrisome Trend

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BEYONDTHEBEAT BY CHIKA AMANZE NWACHUKU

Last week, the media was awash with reports that Nigeria’s telecommunications industry, in a space of two years, lost colossal $3 billion revenue to Call Masking and Refiling.

The Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof Umar Garba Danbatta, who made the startling revelation at the 85th edition of Telecoms Consumer Parliament (TCP), also disclosed that 750,000 numbers assigned to 13 operators from the national network, have been barred, while six interconnect exchange licensees linked to the telecom fraud were suspended in February.

Call masking and Refiling, according to the NCC, have been trending since September 2016 following the implementation of the N24.40 international termination rate (ITR), but the trend has become more prevalent in the country.
A masked call happens when an international call coming into a country is concealed and presented as a local call in order to avoid payment of the correct ITR. For instance, if a number is masked as a local call, the rogue network operator pays N3.90 Local Termination Rate (LTR) instead of the N24.40 ITR.

Umar Danbatta
Umar Garba-Danbatta

Call masking allows operators to terminate inbound international telecoms traffic as local calls, thereby shielding them from paying the ITR, which is the interconnection charge recommended by telecoms traffic carriers as carrier-to-carrier charges.
A SIM Box fraud, on the other hand, is a practice where by SIM boxes were installed with multiple prepaid SIM cards. This enables the fraudsters to bring calls through VOIP (through internet) and terminate international calls through local phone numbers in the respective country, just to make it appear as a local call, by initiating the call through local SIM installed in the SIM box.

The menace of call masking has been a cause for concerns in the telecoms industry, with industry experts, lawmakers and other well-meaning Nigerians, positing that it not only constitutes serious threat to national security, but obstructs revenue that should accrue to government.
Telecoms industry expert cum Director-General, Delta State Innovation Hub (DSHUB), Chris Uwaje recently expressed the fear that call masking could make it impossible to trace calls linked to terrorists groups.

“The security issue now is, if you want to trace a call to Boko Haram and they are using call masking to do that, automatically it becomes difficult to trace and any decision made from that move could be disastrous. “Masking is to cover and it usually comes with intent. It is a crime. Why do you mask a number when automatically your caller ID is the one that will take precedence? So, they are subverting the caller ID for several reasons, majorly economic, and that could lead to serious security threat for the country”, said Uwaje.

Concerned about the dire implications of this worrisome trend in the industry, the nation’s security and the economy as a whole, the NCC, had taken drastic monitoring, compliance and enforcement measures to fish out the fraudulent networks. A range of sanctions had been imposed on licensees involved in the fraudulent act; this was aside the recall of redundant numbers to ensure they were not used in undermining national security.
But despite the various sanctions on fraudulent licensees and other regulatory actions taken by the telecoms industry regulator, the fraudulent practice has continued unabated.

Determined to eliminate the menace, the NCC and the House Committee on Financial Crimes met on July 16th 2018 in Abuja, to proffer lasting solutions to the problem.
At the meeting, the commission had revealed its plan to deploy a new technological solution that would track and unmask the perpetrators anywhere in the country. .

Danbatta, while addressing the visiting lawmakers on the issue, noted that the menace was not peculiar to Nigeria’s telecom industry alone, but disclosed that the agency had assembled its finest technical brains to shop for the best technology solution to be deployed for detecting SIM boxes used by the fraudsters.

The NCC boss said: “When we notice a phenomenon which is anticompetitive or undermining the security of the land we promptly take actions. “In this regard, we have taken some steps to ensure that operators licensed by the commission abstain from the act. And we noticed an anecdotal improvement as the numbers came down reasonably. Yet all of a sudden we have an additional dimension, SIM boxing. These are electronic boxes with a capacity to receive and transmit calls. “We are at a loss how these items of equipment find their way into this country because we don’t type-approve them, and we couldn’t have type approved them. It’s illegal to bring SIM boxes into the country.”

Danbatta further noted that other African countries afflicted by the call masking problem successfully used technology solutions to address it.
Interestingly, the NCC has taken the bull by the horns and has vowed adequate sanction on operators and individuals who indulge in call masking, call refiling and SIM Boxing.

However, analysts reasoned that the new technology solution can only be effective, if direct victims (persons who have received masked calls) supply correct details to the Commission for investigations.
To that end, the commission has urged the telecoms subscribers and others to report incidents of call masking and refiling to a special code: 622.

In the words of Danbatta: “The Commission is set to take the bull by the horn towards putting an end to call masking menace in the country. NCC is leveraging different consumer platforms to deepen awareness campaign on call masking and we advise consumers to report the local numbers through which they receive foreign calls as masked calls to the Commission for proper tracking.”

The steps taken so far by the NCC to do away with the menace within the shortest possible time, no doubts are highly commendable, but industry analysts have recommended among others, severe sanctions on all those involved in the sordid act to serve as a deterrent to others.

Recent investigations revealed that some SIM cards were not properly registered- some were registered with fake names, first or middle names or nicknames. Checks have also showed that some recycled, pre-registered or discarded SIM cards registered on the various networks are reallocated to new subscribers, who also registered them in their names. In most cases, identities of former SIM cards owners/owners were retained in the telecom network’s data base, banks’ data base etc, reflecting multiplicity of identities.

Analysts therefore argued that for the new technology to be effective in combating call masking and refiling, true identities of SIM card owners must be ascertained. Also, network producers should ensure that SIM cards are properly registered with full identities of the subscribers.

On its part, the NCC should embark on more enlightenment programmes to educate subscribers on the need to report cases of call masking and refiling and to supply details to the commission. Also, the Commission should intensify awareness campaigns against the menace of pre-registered SIM cards, and ensure those who still indulge in the unlawful act are punished.