X-raying the fight against menace of pre-registered SIM cards

As part of efforts targeted at mitigating and possibly eliminating the various security challenges occasioned by 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 in the country.

A pre-registered SIM card is a fraudulently-activated or improperly-registered SIM card, which is not in line with the regulatory requirements stipulated by the Commission. Users of such SIM cards do so either out of ignorance or as a deliberate intent to use the SIM cards 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.

According to the Commission, the move to curb the ugly trend constituting serious dangers to individuals and a potential threat to national security, 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 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 Police, 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.

The NCC has, over the years, 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
In 2017, the Commission reviewed its SIM replacement regulations by making the process of replacing lost, stolen or damaged SIM cards more stringent in order to protect telecommunications consumers.

While speaking 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 the owners 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.”

Industry observers have also agreed 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 the Commission has been working on.

Buttressing the Commission’s initiative, the President, Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, had 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 most prevalent 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 money to SIM fraudsters.

SIM fraud is fueled by indulgence of criminally-minded individuals who engage in illegal SIM swap. SIM Swap fraud has also come about, as mobile numbers of most subscribers have become their de factor bank account.

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, 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 further addressing the issue of pre-registered and improperly-registered SIM cards being used to defraud bank customers.

Speaking at the forum, Danbatta has noted that despite advances in technology, human intervention is 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.

Nationwide sensitisation programme
Through its Compliance Monitoring and Enforcement team, the Commission has commenced a sensitisation programme across the six geo-political zones in the country to educate stakeholders on the dangers of pre-registered SIM cards.

The sensitisation programme, which already held in Enugu for South-East on April 2 and in Nasarawa for North Central on April 11, 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, 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, they make it difficult for our law enforcement agents to apprehend person 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 also 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.