SIM Boxing: How NCC stopped $3bn call masking revenue fraud, blocked 750,000 illegal lines

•Prof Umar Danbatta, Executive Vice Chairman, NCC

The masking of foreign calls with local phone numbers was illegal, a security risk and also a threat to the revenue base of major mobile network operators (MNOs) whose networks were bypassed for such calls.

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Leadership investigation revealed that call masking or refiling is the practice of cloning a local telephone number in place of an international number and vice versa with the intention of misconstruing the network that the call was a local call just to shortchanging the telecom operator and the government of revenue due it.

According to the executive vice chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Professor Umaru Danbatta, “SIM boxing or Interconnect Bypass Fraud (IBF) is one of the most prevalent frauds in the telecom industry today and it is estimated to be costing the industry $3 billion in lost revenue.”

Danbatta described call masking as a phenomenon whereby an international call is masked to appear as a local call on any GSM network in Nigeria while SIM Boxing on the other hand refers to electronic boxes or devices with multiple SIMs that have the capacity to terminate calls at local interconnect rates. He said SIM Boxing was observed to have started at the time the Commission decided to review international termination rates from N 3.90/ min. to N24.40/ min. for international inbound traffic which provided an opportunity for technology manipulators to terminate calls at N 3. 90/ min. and cart away the difference thereby cutting the revenue meant for the Operators and by implication the government. A SIM box has capacity to receive and transmit calls undetected.

“However, the challenge is that these SIM boxes are never type-approved by the Commission, a clear indication that they are being used illegally in the country”, the NCC boss stated then. To drive home the point that the Commission was serious about flushing the twin evils out of the industry, Professor Danbatta quickly vide a letter with Ref: TSNI/GEN/VOL.4/115 dated July 19, 2017 directed relevant licencees to ensure the cessation of call masking or refiling activity on their respective networks. The deadline for compliance was July 28, 2017. Furthermore, on August 3, 2017, at a stakeholders meeting organized by the Commission in which the affected companies participated, it was resolved that a comprehensive investigation would be carried out by the NCC to determine the companies/licences involved in the illegal act.

All the licences were warned to desist from this practice. It was also agreed that identified culprits would be sanctioned as part of measures to forestall the negative impact of this incidence on national security. After months of thorough investigation, the telecom regulator in a letter dated January 12, 2018 signed by Yetunde Akinloye, head, legal and regulatory services and Efosa Idehen, head, compliance monitoring and enforcement on behalf of the executive vice chairman/CEO, NCC, issued the Notice of Intention to Suspend licence pursuant to Section 45 (1) and (3) of the Nigerian Communications Act of some culprits found wanting. NCC gave notice of its intention to suspend the interconnect exchange licences granted to six telecommunications clearinghouses over the unethical practice of allowing call masking and call refilling emanate from their facilities.

The companies Medallion Communications Limited, Interconnect Clearinghouse Nigeria Limited, Niconnx Communication Limited, Breeze Micro Limited, Solid Interconnectivity and Exchange Telecommunications Limited and they were given p to January 31, 2018 to state reasons why the regulator should not suspend their licences. According to the NCC’s letter, ““having carefully analysed all the relevant data collected in the course of its investigation activities, the Commission has established a direct and indirect evidence against your company in the illegal and unwholesome activity of call masking and refiling. “Consequently, the Commission, pursuant to Section 45 (1 and (3) of the Nigerian Communications Act, 2003 hereby gives you Notice of its Intention to suspend Interconnect Exchange Licence granted to your company due to your involvement in call masking and refiling and your failure to rectify the breach, despite repeated interventions by the Commission. You are therefore required to state reasons why the Commission should not suspend the said licence. We expected to receive your response on or before January 31, 2018” the letter read. Nearly a month later, NCC handed various levels of sanctions to telecom clearing houses and network providers implicated in the high incidence of call-masking, call-refiling and SIM-Boxing. NCC conducted a painstaking investigation process which included collaboration with the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) and the Department of State Services.

Among the various ranges of sanctions were the suspension of the Interconnect Clearinghouse License issued to Medallion Communications Limited for a period of 90 days, in the first instance; Issuance of a strong warning to Interconnect Clearinghouse Nigeria Limited; disconnection of Information Connectivity Solutions Limited (ICSL) and Solid Interconnectivity Services Limited from all networks, until they regularize their operations. Others were: Issuance of letters to Exchange Telecoms Limited, NiconnX Limited and Breeze Micro Limited, cautioning them against engaging in the fraudulent practice; and barring of over 750,000 numbers assigned to several Private Network Links (PNL) and Local Exchange Operator (LEO) licensees, which number ranges were found to have been utilised for the practice.

The Commission said the sanctioned entities were found to be directly and indirectly complicit in several infractions, including, covertly allowing organisations with expired licences to transit calls, failure to undertake due diligence on parties seeking to interconnect, deliberately turning a blind eye to masking infractions by interconnect partners, and using a licence issued to another organisation to bring-in and terminate international calls which were masked as local calls to other operators.

During the investigation, it was found that over 750,000 individual numbers across the nation made up of about 31 number ranges were used for the fraud. NCC barred those numbers which belonged to Vezeti Communications Services Limited, Voix Networks Limited, Mobitel Limited, Peace Global Satellite Communications Limited, ABG Communications Limited, Vodacom Business Africa (Nigeria) Limited, Swift Telephone Networks Limited, QVODA Telecoms Limited, Wireless Telecoms Limited and Emcatel Networks Limited. The Commission found that some of them were terminating millions of minutes, whereas they only have very few active customers. Following that, NCC began the second stage of investigation which focused on the Mobile Network Operators and other persons involved in SIM-Boxing. The aim of the Commission was to completely stamp out the fraudulent practice in the overall interest of all Nigerians. To this end, NCC in 2018 introduced a new technology which nipped in the bud, menace of call masking and call refiling. (Leadership)

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