An investigation conducted by MyBroadband has found that it is so easy to buy an illegally-registered SIM in South Africa some consumers might do it by accident.
According to the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication‑Related Information Act – commonly referred to as RICA – all SIM cards purchased in the country need to be registered.
This requires the person who buys the SIM card to present an ID, a copy thereof and a valid proof of residence to an approved RICA agent – which could include salespersons at mobile operators or cellular resellers.
The agent is then required to capture the customer’s details – including their name, surname, ID number, and address – in a database.
In the event that the police identify a certain mobile number that was used in a crime, they are then able to subpoena the relevant mobile operator.
The operator can then provide the police with the information linked to the phone number to investigate further.
However, a police source told MyBroadband that many SIM cards were being illegally registered with incorrect or fraudulent details, making it difficult to pursue criminals who were buying these SIMs.
A MyBroadband reader also informed us they had once purchased a pre-registered SIM card without knowing it was illegal.
Certain RICA agents are registering SIM cards from all of South Africa’s mobile operators in batches.
In many cases, they would open the packaging, insert the card into a machine or cellphone, perform the RICA process, and put it back in the package.
We visited two shops to see if it was possible to purchase a SIM without the necessary RICA documentation or registration.
Attempt 1 – Vodacom SIM
The first store we visited was located in a small shopping centre in a middle-class suburb in Centurion. The store offers a cellphone repair service and sells basic electronics and mobile phone accessories.
We approached one of the salespeople and asked if they had any Vodacom SIMs for sale.
He told us they had, after which we asked if any documents were required for the purchase. To this, he responded that the SIM cards were already registered and would cost R10.
We paid for the card, and we were handed an opened Vodacom prepaid starter pack with the supposed cell number of the SIM card written above the barcode.
After leaving the shop, we inspected the starter pack and surmised that the SIM had been removed from the plastic card that held it, as the brackets had been snapped and a piece of tape was applied to hold the card in place.
We then placed the SIM card into a cellphone to see if it had been pre-RICAed. Sure enough, our phone instantly connected to the Vodacom network with a strong 4G signal.
We then confirmed that the card was RICAed through Vodacom’s RICA-check service by sending the word “RICA” to 31050. A responding SMS stated that the number was “registered in terms of RICA”.
Below are images of the Vodacom SIM card as received, showing the broken brackets, and the screenshots confirming the number was connected to the Vodacom network.
Attempt 2 – MTN SIM
The second store was located in a shopping complex in an affluent area in Pretoria. It offered similar services and products as the first shop but was smaller.
This time asked a salesperson if we could buy an MTN SIM, which he confirmed we could.
We asked if we had to provide any documents, but the salesperson said they were not necessary as the cards had already been RICAed.
He produced a black plastic shopping bag from behind the counter, from which he took out a pack of MTN SIM cards.
After examining the package, he noticed they were still sealed in their packaging and said it did not appear they were RICAed as he had originally been told by his supplier.
We asked if he could help us RICA the cards, but since he was not a RICA agent, he said we would have to go do it at a nearby Ackerman’s.
Before he realised the packaging was still closed, he told us it would also cost R10, but after his discovery said we could take the SIM for free and check if it worked.
We inserted the card into a phone to confirm it had not been registered.
The phone connected to the MTN network and we started receiving welcoming messages, however, including one which confirmed the phone number.
We then used MTN’s RICA-check service by dialling *133*4# to confirm if the number had been registered.
A pop-up message stated: “Please note that [number] has been registered for RICA”.
Below are images of the MTN SIM card as received in its packaging, with no broken brackets, and the screenshots confirming the number was receiving signal and had been RICAed.
Avoid buying illegal SIMs
It should be noted that at no point during the buying process did MyBroadband ask for pre-registered SIMs.
Our investigation found that should unwitting consumers have a similar purchasing experience at a local mobile store, they would be at risk of inadvertently buying illegally-registered cards.
Whenever purchasing a SIM, you should be required to present a valid ID, copy thereof, and a proof residence to facilitate the RICA process.
If you suspect that you bought an illegal SIM card, it is recommended that you inform the relevant mobile operator.