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Opinions Sat, 1 Oct 2016

The elusive world of telecom fraud. Which way forward?

Internet fraud has been known in Ghana for many years but until recently when the airwaves became awash with news of the arrests of people engaged in SIM BOX fraud, much had not been heard about telecom fraud.

Until its establishment in 2010 and forays into the world of telecom fraud, many mobile phone users in the country did not understand why a foreign call would show as a local call on their phone screens.

That is SIM BOX fraud or SIM boxing, the most popular telecom fraud to gain notoriety in Ghana.

It involves the use of SIM cards referred to in Ghana as phone chips and the employment of very simple to sophisticated gadgets to divert calls from their original SIMs or callers and onto the SIMs of the fraudsters.

By so doing, the fraudsters are able to attract or get the revenue that would have otherwise accrued to the telecom companies and also to the state.

But what makes SIM boxing a tough nut to crack is the elusiveness of the perpetrators of the crime, from the simplicity and un-assumed nature of the gadgets to the diverse and the hard-to-suspect locations where they operate from.

The only reason a task force comprising companies such as Subah Infosolutions Ghana Limited, security agencies and telecom regulators are able to make inroads in apprehending some of the fraudsters is that they have gadgets that detect SIM boxing locations, which they also update from time to time as the fraudsters also upgrade their techniques.

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Tom & Jerry tactics

However, as if the fraudsters and the information technology(IT) solutions companies are constantly engaged in a replay of the popular Tom and Jerry cartoon series, despite the numerous times that their nefarious activities have been found out, they continue to use other means to elude the authorities to avoid arrest.

Addressing the 3rd Annual Africa Telecoms Fraud, Revenue Assurance and Risk Management Forum 2016 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on August 3, 2016, the General Manager, Operations at Subah Infosolutions, Mr Daniel Maafo, said the fraudsters used many means to outwit authorities such as operating in many satellite locations at the same time.

They also use very simple and easy-to-carry electronic gadgets such as laptops which they wittingly transport through the ports as part of their personal luggage, so as not to raise any suspicions, he said.

To evade arrest, they are using all means including putting their devices “at places where it is unmanned so you will go and pick the device but you cannot pick the person,” Mr Maafo said.

He added that the unmanned places are sometimes hotel rooms that are booked for months with strict instructions to the unsuspecting hotel staff not to clean the rooms and ignorant recruits asked to just ensure the batteries are always running for very handsome remuneration.

Others also visit friends under the pretext of charging a gadget which turns out to be a SIM boxing device unknown to the house owner, but they bolt before the task force reaches them.

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Impact of SIM fraud on revenue

SIM boxing does not only affect Ghana but other countries such as Uganda, Cameroun, Senegal and Congo where millions of dollars is lost annually to the state.

According to an article by biztechafrica.com, in 2014, the government of Ghana reported an annual loss of about $40 million through the activities of bypassing the Approved International Gateway.

Sonatel in Senegal also lost not less than 10 billion francs CFA to SIM box fraudsters in 2014, while the Congolese government successfully dismantled a network of SIM box operators in 2013 that were causing the country losses of up to US$30 billion yearly, it said.

Emerging telecom fraud

Apart from SIM boxing, there are other revenue syphoning telecom fraud and leakages that have emerged.

These include OTT bypass, refiling fraud and malicious codes, mobile money leakages on automation and integrations and non-declaration of revenue.

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There are also non intentional leaks such as system malfunctioning, errors, omissions or general lack of knowledge and wrong calculations.

Winning battle?

Mr Maafo nonetheless believes the battle against telecom fraud is being won. “I think we are winning the battle. In fact the interpretation of people going to hide in the hotel is that they have now seen that they can run but they cannot hide, so they are trying to shy away from their usual operational places or source it to other places and hide.”

According to him, as Subah’s devices were linked to the devices used to perpetrate the crime, it was just a matter of time for the arm of the device to reach the fraudsters and they would be picked up.

He said the success of the war against telecom fraud such as SIM boxing laid in the fact that perpetrators were no more using homes and offices as was the case because they realised that it was no longer safe for them.

“They are aware that it is not safe to do this operation and it is a deterrent to others. It is just that the amount of money they make from it is so high that they believe they cannot forgo it, but gradually people are running away, hiding in places and since wherever you hide we will be able to reach you, it is just a matter of time,” Mr Maafo stressed.

Research indicates that some of the fraudsters make as much as GH¢9 million on a monthly basis.

Mr Maafo was ,however, of the opinion that a lot needed to be done to make it extremely difficult for the fraudsters to procure the SIM cards which are the main inputs used for the crime.

Trying to proffer the reason for the easy access to SIMs, he suggested that people employed to market the various networks were primarily concerned with reaching their targets and so they sold to anyone who needed them without first questioning the motive for the procurement of multiple SIMs.

He believed if marketing personnel who met their targets ‘wrongly’ were punished, it could limit the number of SIMs in wrong hands.

Columnist: Edmund Smith-Asante