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Illegal SIM card business booms – Vendors, fraudsters main culprits


An underground economy centred around the illicit sale and use of pre-registered Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards is gradually expanding nationwide. Checks by the Daily Graphic have revealed a network of vendors profiting from the trade. Some operate in the shadows of society and target busy markets or vulnerable communities with little awareness of the legal repercussions of using pre-registered SIMs, while others take advantage of the growing demand.

Through insider interviews at places such as Kasoa, Mankessim and Assin Fosu in the Central Region, and Kwame Nkrumah Interchange and Madina Zongo Junction in Accra, the Daily Graphic team discovered that these vendors were able to secure and sell hundreds of pre-registered SIM cards usually through the exploitation of legitimate registration loopholes.

“As for the registration, it is simple and if you get one Ghana Card, you can register like 10. First, you download the application; there are different ones but the same process across the networks”, Kwame Kwateng (not his real name), a vendor, told the Daily Graphic in an interview.

The sale of these pre-registered SIM cards was expected to end when the SIM re-registration exercise involving two stages of registration was introduced by the National Communications Authority (NCA) in 2022.

While the first stage of the registration process involved the mere linking of the SIM card to an identification document (Ghana Card), stage two offered another security layer which required the user to biometrically verify the registration details before the registration is entered into the database as fully completed.

Per this process, nobody should be able to use another person’s details to register a SIM card without the person’s physical presence to complete the process.

However, Mr Kwateng explained that the capturing of the biometric data of customers by the vendor gave them access to these personal data which they stored and used later to register other SIM cards without the knowledge or presence of the customer required.

The Daily Graphic learnt that after pre-registering them, the SIM cards are then peddled, sometimes at inflated prices to customers seeking anonymity or looking to avoid registration requirements or people without a Ghana Card, usually foreigners who approach the vendors.

The Daily Graphic team bought a SIM card of each of the telcos operating in the country at GH¢25. Each of them was already registered and was able to make and receive calls. The cards had the following PUK numbers, 94480249 (MTN), 12462981 ( AT), and 47270656 (Telecel). This shady business has raised serious concerns about national security, privacy breaches and the integrity of the telecommunications industry.

Responding to the prevalence of the illegal trade, MTN told the Daily Graphic that it collaborated with the police to track persons involved in such acts and had assisted in the arrest of some people involved in the illegal trade.

“We have in the past facilitated the arrest of about nine suspects related to this,” it said.

According to MTN, it was in compliance with the SIM Registration Regulation, LI 2006, and, therefore, did not condone the use, sale or purchase of pre-registered SIMs. “Customers in MTN’s database have validly been registered with a Ghana Card in accordance with the guidelines for SIM registration as issued by the NCA,” it said.

The Consumer and Corporate Affairs Department of the NCA told the Daily Graphic that mobile network operators (MNOs) had ways of identifying SIM cards that had suspicious registration and had been tasked to get rid of all such cards in the system.

The MNOs are supposed to know their vendors who have access to the system used for the SIM registration and their exact location when a registration is completed. That means all vendors who register SIM cards could be easily identified by the MNOs.

“Yeah, they have ways of knowing that. They can track the number registered and know who did the registration,” Kwame Gyan of the NCA Public Affairs Department told the Daily Graphic. The NCA said the MNOs had, therefore, been put on high alert to identify vendors that engaged in the pre-registration and sale of such SIM cards on the open market.
The impact of this underground market extends far beyond mere profit-making. The untraceable nature of pre-registered SIM cards provides a convenient tool for criminals to carry out illegal activities with impunity. A Daily Graphic source said in an interview that at Assin Fosu, for instance, some individuals who engaged in mobile money fraud continuously sought pre-registered SIM cards to perpetuate their nefarious activities.

Law enforcement agencies struggle to track down perpetrators who utilise these untraceable numbers for fraud and cybercrime, among others. Meanwhile, the NCA faces an uphill task in dismantling this underground trade and holding offenders accountable.

In April, it issued a stern caution to the public regarding the sale and usage of pre-registered SIMs. The NCA said such actions were illegal and punishable by law.

“Under Section 738 of the Electronic Communications (Amendment) Act, 2016, Act 910, the sale and usage of pre-registered SIM cards is explicitly prohibited,” it stated. It explained that any individual knowingly involved in dealing with pre-registered SIM cards was committing an offence and was subject to penalties, including fines of up to three thousand penalty units, imprisonment for up to five years or both.

In light of these legal consequences, the NCA urged entities and individuals engaged in the illegal sale and usage of pre-registered SIM cards to immediately cease their activities and adhere to the proper procedures for acquiring and registering SIM cards.

Beyond that, the public was strongly advised against registering SIM cards on behalf of others as the owner of the Ghana Card used for registration will be held accountable if those numbers are implicated in any criminal activity. At the inception of the SIM re-registration exercise on October 1, 2021, there were about 42 million active SIM cards in the country. They comprised SIM cards registered with identity cards such as the National Health Insurance Scheme cards, passports and driving licences. The NCA, at whose behest the re-registration started, said many of these IDs were not verified when they were used to register the SIMs, hence the re-registration.

After the first phase of the exercise, there were about 36 million active SIM cards in circulation as of May 2023, out of which 25 million (69.6 per cent) had been duly re-registered. This means that over 25.4 million SIM cards had completed both stages one and two of the SIM re-registration, which was done with verified Ghana Cards as of June 2023.

By: Kester Aburam Korankye

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