Illegal SIM card business booms – Vendors, fraudsters main culprits

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Daily Graphic checks have uncovered a network of profiting vendors, some operating in the shadows and preying on vulnerable populations or busy markets with little knowledge of the legal ramifications of using pre-registered SIMs, while others capitalise on the industry’s expanding demand.

The Daily Graphic team learned that these vendors were able to obtain and sell hundreds of pre-registered SIM cards by conducting insider interviews at locations like Kasoa, Mankessim, and Assin Fosu in the Central Region, as well as Kwame Nkrumah Interchange and Madina Zongo Junction in Accra. These vendors typically did this by taking advantage of legal registration loopholes.

“As for the registration, it is simple and if you get one Ghana Card, you can register like 10. First, you download the application; there are different ones but the same process across the networks”, Kwame Kwateng (not his real name), a vendor, told the Daily Graphic in an interview.

Breaking the regulations
When the National Communications Authority (NCA) implemented the two-stage SIM re-registration process in 2022, the selling of these pre-registered SIM cards was supposed to come to a stop.

Stage two of the registration process added an extra layer of security by requiring the user to biometrically verify the registration details before the registration could be entered into the database as complete. The first stage of the registration process only involved linking the SIM card to an identity document (the Ghana Card).

No one should be able to register a SIM card using another person’s data without that person being present in person to finish the transaction, according to this procedure.

But Mr. Kwateng clarified that the vendor had access to the customers’ personal information when they collected their biometric data, which they then saved and utilised to register more SIM cards without the consumers’ knowledge or presence being necessary.

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The Daily Graphic has learned that the SIM cards are subsequently sold, often at exorbitant costs, to clients who want to evade registration restrictions or anonymity, or to individuals who don’t have a Ghana Card—mostly foreigners who contact the dealers.

For GH¢25, the Daily Graphic crew purchased a SIM card from each of the national telecom companies. They could all make and receive calls and were already enrolled. PUK numbers 94480249 (MTN), 12462981 (AT), and 47270656 (Telecel) were on the cards.

Serious questions concerning privacy violations, national security, and the integrity of the telecom sector have been brought up by this dubious enterprise.

Implications

In response to the widespread unlawful trade, MTN told the Daily Graphic that it worked with law enforcement to find those engaged in such activities and has helped some of those participating in the illegal trade be taken into custody. It stated, “We have previously assisted in the apprehension of approximately nine suspects connected to this.”

MTN stated that it did not support the usage, sale, or acquisition of pre-registered SIMs since it complied with the SIM Registration Regulation, LI 2006. According to the NCA’s SIM registration requirements, “customers in MTN’s database have validly been registered with a Ghana Card,” the statement read.

High alert

The Consumer and Corporate Affairs Department of the NCA told the Daily Graphic that mobile network operators (MNOs) had ways of identifying SIM cards that had suspicious registration and had been tasked to get rid of all such cards in the system.

The MNOs are supposed to know their vendors who have access to the system used for the SIM registration and their exact location when a registration is completed. That means all vendors who register SIM cards could be easily identified by the MNOs.

“Yeah, they have ways of knowing that. They can track the number registered and know who did the registration,” Kwame Gyan of the NCA Public Affairs Department told the Daily Graphic.

The NCA said the MNOs had, therefore, been put on high alert to identify vendors that engaged in the pre-registration and sale of such SIM cards on the open market.

Illegal activities

The impact of this underground market extends far beyond mere profit-making. The untraceable nature of pre-registered SIM cards provides a convenient tool for criminals to carry out illegal activities with impunity.

A Daily Graphic source said in an interview that at Assin Fosu, for instance, some individuals who engaged in mobile money fraud continuously sought pre-registered SIM cards to perpetuate their nefarious activities.

Law enforcement agencies struggle to track down perpetrators who utilise these untraceable numbers for fraud and cybercrime, among others. Meanwhile, the NCA faces an uphill task in dismantling this underground trade and holding offenders accountable.

In April, it issued a stern caution to the public regarding the sale and usage of pre-registered SIMs. The NCA said such actions were illegal and punishable by law.

“Under Section 738 of the Electronic Communications (Amendment) Act, 2016, Act 910, the sale and usage of pre-registered SIM cards is explicitly prohibited,” it stated. It explained that any individual knowingly involved in dealing with pre-registered SIM cards was committing an offence and was subject to penalties, including fines of up to three thousand penalty units, imprisonment for up to five years or both.

In light of these legal consequences, the NCA urged entities and individuals engaged in the illegal sale and usage of pre-registered SIM cards to immediately cease their activities and adhere to the proper procedures for acquiring and registering SIM cards.

Beyond that, the public was strongly advised against registering SIM cards on behalf of others as the owner of the Ghana Card used for registration will be held accountable if those numbers are implicated in any criminal activity.

 Background

At the inception of the SIM re-registration exercise on October 1, 2021, there were about 42 million active SIM cards in the country. They were made up of SIM cards registered with identity cards such as the National Health Insurance Scheme cards, passports and driving licence.

The NCA, at whose behest the re-registration started, said a lot of these IDs were not verified at the time they were used to register the SIMs, hence the re-registration.

After the first phase of the exercise, there were about 36 million active SIM cards in circulation as of May 2023, out of which 25 million (69.6 per cent) had been duly re-registered. This means that over 25.4 million SIM cards had completed both stages one and two of the SIM re-registration, which was done with verified Ghana Cards as of June 2023.

source Daily graphic