The collaboration among the Nigerian Communications Commission, telecoms operators, Office of the National Security Adviser, Central Bank of Nigeria, Nigeria Police Force and the Judiciary among others, is a welcome development that will address the dangers of pre-registered SIM cards, writes Emma Okonji
Of recent, Nigerians have witnessed the rising rates of pre-registered Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards across the country, perpetrated by people of questionable characters, who use the cards for unwholesome activities like kidnapping, call masking, threat to lives and bullying among others.
Worried by the development, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telecoms industry regulator, made several attempts to trace pre-registered SIM cards to people who kept them for their selfish use and got them arrested and prosecuted. But the more NCC makes efforts to address the ugly trend, the more the practice persists.
In order to reduce and possibly eliminate the various security challenges occasioned by cases of fraudulently-activated SIM cards in the country, the NCC, of recent, decided to explore different regulatory interventions and collaborated with necessary stakeholders and agencies like Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Police, Judiciary, National Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), among others.
Pre-registered SIM cards
The SIM card is a small smart chip card that is fixed into a mobile phone or mobile device, which carries the identification number that is unique to the owner of the mobile phone or device that registered the SIM card with any network provider. The SIM card stores the data of GSM telephone subscribers, and the SIM card, by law, must be registered with correct identity before activation and usage.
But a pre-registered SIM card is a fraudulently-activated or improperly-registered SIM card, whose registration is against 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.
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.
Such government agencies include the ONSA, the CBN, the Nigeria Police Force(NPF), the NSCDC, the judiciary, MNOs, telecom consumers, among others. This is in addition to ongoing consumer awareness programmes across the six geo-political zones of the country, carried out by NCC to sensitise the consumers on dangers of patronising pre-registered SIM cards.
According to NCC, 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, NCC 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.
SIM replacement procedures
As a proactive measure, the commission had, at as 2017, come 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, 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 the owners of some numbers do SIM swap at various customer centres of the service providers,” Danbatta said.
According to him, there had 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,” Danbatta said.
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 of ‘no withdrawal’ on such account linked to the stoen, 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 require severe regulatory framework to keep them under firm control as well as ensuring a high level of compliance, which is a routine exercise by the enforcement team of the Commission.
Supporting the commission’s initiative, the President, Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. Olusola Teniola, said at a recent 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
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, has made many unsuspecting bank customers to lose their hard-earned money to 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.
In order to address the issue, the commission, in January this year in Abuja, held a stakeholder forum on financial fraud using telecoms platforms. 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 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, which 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 challenge, the commission through its enforcement 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 had already been held in Enugu for the South-east and Nasarawa for the North Central in the first week of April this year, will be hosted in South-west, North-east, South-south and North-west geo-political zones in the coming weeks, according to NCC.
Speaking during the Enugu edition of the programme, the Executive Commissioner, Stakeholder Management at NCC, Mr. Sunday Dare, stressed the importance of educating all stakeholders on the dangers of pre-registered SIM cards.
According to Dare, “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.
“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.”
He 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.