SIM card cartel kingpins nailed in South Africa

The Communication Risk Information Centre (COMRiC) has assisted in arresting individuals involved in a major SIM card fraud operation in Gauteng and the Free State.

Forty-eight suspects were arrested, 45 in Johannesburg and 3 in Bloemfontein, all of whom are foreign nationals.

Six of the suspects are Chinese nationals and are believed to be the kingpins of the operation.

Over two million illegally obtained SIM cards, none of which were cloned or fake, were seized in the arrest. These were from multiple service providers.

Bulk SMS messaging machines, devices used to send large volumes of text messages, were also confiscated.

“The Bloemfontein arrests followed a comprehensive operation by a multi-faceted team comprising various police units, government departments, private security, and forensic investigators,” COMRiC noted.

“In that specific operation, police investigators acted on information regarding two houses in Woodlands, Bloemfontein. The search and seizure operation resulted in the recovery of SIM cards from different service providers.”

COMRiC CEO Thokozani Mvelase believes that the machines indicate criminal activity.

This is because illegal SIM cards can result in identity theft, theft of private information, and criminals accessing bank accounts and bypassing security measures, COMRiC said.

The use of stolen SIM cards also poses major challenges to network service providers and authorities by undermining the integrity of the telecommunications network.

“These illicit activities can lead to network congestion, reduced service quality, and increased operational costs for providers who must invest heavily in security measures and fraud detection systems,” COMRiC stated.

Having stolen SIM cards in circulation also hinders law enforcement’s efforts to track and apprehend criminals.

“We have now formed a joint task team with law enforcement officers, and we are supporting SAPS in its investigation,” Mvelase said.

“This helps us understand how so many SIM cards ended up in specific locations, especially if the individuals involved are not recognised distribution channels for any of our members.”

Thokozani Mvelase, COMRiC CEO

MTN announced in March of last year that it would start cracking down on illegally registered SIM cards sold by its partner distributors.

The company sent a notice informing them it would automatically start deregistering SIMs that were not activated three days after being RICA’d.

“Effective 24 February 2023, MTN South Africa will implement a RICA deregistration for all SIMs that have been RICA’d but not activated (DMA’d) within 72 hours,” said MTN general manager for main market and sales execution, Gregg Anderson

MTN told distributors that the purpose of the change was to encourage sales agents and customers to complete immediate activations as part of the natural sales process.

If a SIM is deregistered due to the expiry period, it can be RICA’d again.

“The sales agent would simply restart the sales onboarding process using the existing SIMs,” MTN explained.

MTN also said the amount of time permitted between a RICA registration and activation would vary as the operator analysed the optimal period it should allow.

An MTN spokesperson told MyBroadband that the operator continuously reviewed its processes and procedures to ensure partners were better equipped to facilitate the RICA requirements.

“We believe that the introduction of this rule will alleviate some of the behavioural concerns that may be present in the market,” the said.

“That includes having large numbers of SIMs unnecessarily ‘pending’ ahead of activation.”

An investigation by MyBroadband previously found it was incredibly easy to buy a pre-RICAed SIM card from small cellular shops across Pretoria.

Many sales agents or distributors perform the RICA registration process on the SIM cards en masse before selling them to customers.

While doing so makes it easier for an innocent consumer to buy a SIM card quickly, it is illegal.

The Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act (RICA) determines that the information loaded into the system must match those of the buyer.

Pre-RICAed SIM cards either give falsified details or those of the wrong person.

This practice has proven to be a major headache for police investigations.

If a cellphone is present during a crime, the police cannot use any RICA information of identified cellphone numbers to help track down suspects.

Investigating officers often subpoena mobile networks for the RICA details of numbers linked to a crime.

But a source familiar with the issue estimated that only in about 10% of cases were the police able to link a phone number to the actual suspect.

A significant problem seems to be that there was no validation of the personal details sales agents entered into the system.

“The person’s name, surname, ID, and address would sometimes just be a mixture of random letters,” the source said.

Often a subscriber’s name would consist of a mix of capitalised consonants, while ID numbers comprised just two or four digits.

RICA does not require any verification of the information with third-party systems like the Home Affairs database.

Doing so would require an active Internet connection, which is not readily available everywhere in South Africa.

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SIM card cartel kingpins nailed in South Africa