Disappearing airtime in South Africa is still real – here is the proof

Following the discovery of disappearing airtime on MTN’s network in 2017, MyBroadband conducted regular tests to determine whether this phenomenon affected any mobile operators.

Follow-up tests in March 2018 found that there was no instance of airtime depletion across mobile operators in South Africa.

Exceptions to this were found in a recent “click-jacking” attack, though, when an MTN customer was subscribed to a WASP without his permission.

MTN told MyBroadband at the time it was implementing aggressive measures to protect customers from fraudulent WASP subscriptions.

The test

To test if irregular airtime depletion was occuring on local mobile networks, MyBroadband placed prepaid SIMs from MTN, Vodacom, Cell C, and Telkom in four Nokia 5 smartphones.

Each SIM was then loaded with airtime.

The smartphones were connected to the same active Wi-Fi connection with the same applications installed, and each was registered to the same Google account.

We also checked if any of the SIMs were subscribed to WASP services via USSD menus. All the SIMs reported they were clean.

On 14 September 2018, the prepaid SIMs were loaded with the following airtime balances:

  • Vodacom – R12.00
  • MTN – R10.00
  • Telkom – R25.00
  • Cell C – R10.00

No user actions which would have consumed airtime or data were performed. The smartphones remained powered on and connected to a stable Wi-Fi connection for the duration of the test.

Airtime balances were recorded regularly and mobile data usage was monitored through the My Data Manager app for Android.

Results

After 24 hours, the airtime balances were checked again – with surprising results:

  • Vodacom – R12.00
  • MTN – R6.00
  • Telkom – R25.00
  • Cell C – R10.00

The data monitoring app showed that none of the devices had used more than 0.1MB of mobile data and had remained connected to Wi-Fi since the beginning of the test.

We left the devices for another three days, after which they reflected the following balances:

  • Vodacom – R12.00
  • MTN – R0.00
  • Telkom – R25.00
  • Cell C – R10.00

The airtime balance on the MTN SIM had been depleted over the test period, despite no mobile data being used and the USSD menu reflecting no WASP subscriptions at the start of the test.

WASP subscriptions

MyBroadband sent the results of the test to MTN and requested feedback on the “disappearing airtime”.

Less than one hour after sending the query, the Nokia 5 with the MTN SIM received the following SMS:

Y’ello. Your Subscription Service to Fantasy football has been cancelled. Please dial *123# for an overview of MTN Subscription Services.

There was no record of a WASP subscription or double opt-in SMS on the Nokia 5 before this.

MTN responds

Following the cancellation SMS, MTN said it established that the number in question was fraudulently subscribed, by the means of click-jacking, to Fantasy Football.

“This type of fraud is prevalent on smartphones, where a user may mistakenly click on a banner that is linked to a bot which mimics the behaviour of the customer and approves the opt-in and double opt in requests without the customer knowing,” said MTN.

The click-jacking attack took place on 26 August 2018, just before our airtime test started.

“Click-jacking fraud is a major issue and we understand this to be a global issue that occurs outside of MTN’s network. We are currently introducing a number of ways to monitor, protect, and put an end to these unscrupulous fraudulent subscriptions.”

This includes MTN’s Treating Customers Fairly (TCF) policy.

“As a result, MTN has put in place measures through TCF to remove these fraudulent subscriptions activities.”

The company said that as part of the second phase of the TCF policy, which is set to be implemented in September, artificial intelligence fraud detection software will mitigate up to 95% of fraudulent subscriptions.

Phase one aimed to possibly mitigate 60% of fraudulent subscriptions, it added.

MTN Prepaid users can also block premium-rated services charges, by:

  • Dialing *136*5#, select Content Services, then select Manage Premium Rated Services, then select PRS Charges, then select Block PRS Charges.

To set you premium-rated services spend to R0.00 on MTNChoice contracts, users must:

  • Dial *136*5#, select Content Services, then select Manage Premium Rated Services, then select PRS spend limit, then select Set Spend Limit.

Now read: 2 million WhatsApp packets per second on Vodacom’s network

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Disappearing airtime in South Africa is still real – here is the proof