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Phone Number Recycling: Fear Grips Nigerian GSM Subscribers

…Users Risk Security Harassment, Jail Sentence

…Plus When Recycling Not Good Thing

Many Nigerian telecommunication subscribers, especially new users, now leave in palpable fear over the possibility that their subscriber identification module (SIM) card in their devices for both calls and the internet may have been recycled by their telecommunications service provider (TSP), exposing they to security and other risks.

Phone number recycling is the industry term that refers to the event when a deactivated or disconnected number gets reassigned to someone else.

Many Nigerians have lost their SIM cards and were unable to retrieve their numbers as the service provider may have deactivated them.

“Sorry, you cannot get the number back” is usually the bad news from the customer care representatives of the telecommunications companies. This happen when certain circumstances beyond the control of subscribers may have led to the inability of the users to apply for the SIM swap within a grace period allowed by the telecoms providers.

Some telephone numbers may have also been abandoned by their users after they were used for criminal activities, but now recycled and resold to citizens.

The situation is even worse with ostensible rise in high profile kidnapping for ransom cases in many parts of the country. It is possible that a citizen may have purchased a SIM card initially used by such criminal elements who are being trailed by covet security detectives but have been recycled by the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) service providers in Nigeria.

At an era where telecommunications promoters storm the streets, markets and other public places selling SIM cards without receipts, many Nigerians have purchased recycled phone numbers unknowingly, even without receipts and may have equally lost their SIM pack, which in some instances, serve as prove of ownership of one’s phone number.

The reality of the dangers associated with purchasing recycled phone number became more plausible after the news of the detention of alleged nearly one year detention of a subscriber accused of illegally swapping a phone number belonging to President Muhammadu Buhari’s daughter but later released through the effort of his lawyer when Buhari’s daughter refused to present herself to prove she is the rightful owner.

On January 7, 2020, Omoyele Sowore, the convener of Revolution Now protest shared on his timeline how a man, Anthony Okolia was illegally detained for possessing a phone line he purchased years after it was allegedly abandoned by Hanan Buhari, daughter of Nigeria’s President.

It was discovered that the accused had earlier registered the SIM. Fortunately, he was still in possession of the payment receipt.

In fact, Okolia was allegedly detained for 10 weeks before he regained his freedom just for purchasing a SIM card.

The incident had generated some controversy leading to fears by Nigerians that the phone number in their possession may equally have been abandoned by another highly placed person or even a crime suspected.

While some questioned legality of SIM swap, others expressed worry over unlawful incarceration of the accused persons on allegation of illegally swapping someone else’s phone number.


Plus When Recycling Not A Good Thing

At the moment, several Nigerians are using recycled phone numbers. Many of such user have complained of receiving calls from unknown individuals demanding to speak with someone they would usually described as “the owner of the phone”. Some others have been receiving bank alerts from accounts belonging to the former owners of their new numbers. The initial owners have linked the numbers to their bank accounts.

According to a report recently published by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, in August 2014, Kazeem Biriowo visited sales promotion event organised by the MTN in Ota, Ado/Odo/Ota Local Government Area in Ogun State. Due to the enticing promotional benefits, he bought an MTN SIM card and immediately completed his SIM registration, data capturing, including fingerprints, there.

Shockingly, months after, a subscriber, who seems to be a Lagos businessman, residing at the Bourdillion called claiming, he is the real owner of the line.

Prior to this time, clients of the businessman were communicating via text messages to the same line, oblivious of the fact that recipient of those messages is not actually their business partner.

This continued for a long time, until  he resolved to discard the SIM card for a another newly registered one.

“It appears the person is into freight business because his clients sent several credit alerts to the SIM,” Biriowo said in the report.

“For instance, someone once sent a message that he has just sent N100, 000 to his (the businessman’s) account as part of N500, 000 payment so far made. So, to avoid impersonation, I decided to forgo the line.”

Biriowo bought another MTN  line but he was shocked to find out the new line he duly registered was also registered with name belonging to another person,  after checking through the True Caller, a popular phone application.

“I was surprised to see Nurse Awal,” he said.

Again, someone called him and said, “Mr Man, this is my phone number. At this time, I was furious. So, I responded – Mr Man! You have called the wrong line”, says Biriowo. “He called again but I insisted the line is mine. So, he terminated the call.”

The report added that subscribers to the major telecommunication companies were randomly contacted and findings showed that most of those who did SIM swap have experienced frustration due to SIM recycling capable of exposing users to danger.

In December 2019, according to the investigative report, Adeleke Adewolu, NCC Executive Commissioner on Stakeholder Management (ECSM) attributed illegal SIM swaps as being responsible for the highest cyber threats recorded in the telecom sector.

But, based on Biriowo’s observation, anyone who buys a phone line which starts with 08033, for instance, from 2018 to date could have bought a swapped line. The original owner could be dead or the SIM card stolen, thus such SIM may have been recycled.

This may not be entirely true, but the report also discovered that mobile phone lines which have been inactive for three months are mostly considered moribund by telecom firms and are disconnected.

It was also discovered that some of the operators would often send a short message to subscribers after the third month to verify the line’s activeness. The concerned persons are then advised to recharge a certain amount; otherwise, the line will be disconnect and recycled.

An alternative scenario is such that mobile SIM cards are mostly produced in batches such as from 0803, 0806, 0813 etc for the MTN. Globacom phone number prefix started with O805, 0807, 0705…etc while Airtel is 0802, 0902, 0701, 0808, 0708, etc. The trend further applies to the other telecom network operators.

As such, while new SIM cards are produced, unused ones are recycled but with likely grave consequences to new subscribers.

Here is an experience of a journalist who bought and registered his number in Lagos, used it for years but moved to Abuja: “When I wanted to change to 4G last month, I went to the Airtel office at Shoprite in Musa Yar’Adua and I was told to write down my name. I did that, but after he checked, I was told it is assigned to another name.

“It is my active line. In fact, I abandoned another line for it. So, that’s not possible,” he argued, yet in a state of confusion. But, the telecom operator official affirmed, “that’s what the record shows.” It was same experience with Biriowo, the earlier complainant.

However, the senior journalist was later advised to re-register the number in his name before he could migrate to 4G. And he was told he would wait another one month before the migration could happen.


What the Law Says

The investigative report added that for almost a decade, the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) campaigned, encouraging mobile phone users to register their SIM cards for the purpose of data capturing and security.

The exercise climaxed at the upsurge of Boko Haram insurgency. But, the process officially ended on June 30, 2013, while that of new SIM users continued.

However, there are provisions of the law which regulates the registration process, determining who should be involved and otherwise.

There was no point where the guideline says an abandoned SIM should be recycled. The regulation does not also specify a particular month an abandoned SIM should be replaced or assigned to other users.

But it is worthy of note that though, Section 4.2 of the guideline empowers telecom operators to reject particular subscribers on selective cases, such issues must be reported to the NCC in 24 hours.

Based on this investigation, users are however advised to password their SIM cards for digital security. It is also important for phone users to approach the recognised corporate offices of the telecom operators for successful SIM swaps.

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