Improperly registered Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards have flooded Nigerian streets and markets as they are freely sold to willing buyers, Daily Trust reports.
With just N200 or less, customers who want the SIM cards for legitimate purposes or those with criminal intent get them from vendors selling by the roadside, in vans or wheel borrows.
This is against a ministerial directive one year ago for the blocking of all improperly registered SIM cards to stem insecurity and other crimes.
Mobile telecommunication providers were also asked to ensure all SIM cards were properly registered but findings revealed that shoddy deals remained prevalent across the country.
A lot of irregularities persist amidst insistence by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) the regulatory body and the telecommunications companies that the right process is being followed.
Experts say it would be difficult for security operatives to contain acts of terrorism, kidnapping, banditry and other sundry crimes when those perpetrating them have unlimited access to SIM cards.
On September 12, 2019, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, directed that all SIM cards not properly registered be blocked until they are fully registered.
Officials said the aim was to ensure that the over 184 million registered SIM cards/mobile lines across Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) networks had valid data that were traceable and not anonymous.
Data from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) as at March 2020, showed that the number of improperly-registered SIM cards had dropped from 9.2m to 2.2m.
This is just as the regulatory agency insists it has provisions that prescribe a controlled environment where SIM cards must be registered and not with roadside agents.
The NCC also said it was harmonising data on the national ID card with SIM card details and the international passport to ensure a seamless identification of SIM card owners.
Similarly, the telecommunications companies, MTN, Airtel and 9mobile, all said they accord utmost priority to SIM card registration and that they ensure that they work with only persons/ entities licensed by the NCC in registration activities.
Daily Trust reports that the Senate has directed its committees on communications and legislative compliance to summon Pantami over the country’s growing insecurity.
The resolution of the upper legislative chamber followed a motion sponsored by the Senate’s Deputy Minority Leader, Emmanuel Bwacha.
While moving his motion, the Taraba South senator lamented that relevant authorities were allowing people to use communications services without taking their information – valid identification and biometrics.
Daily Trust investigation found out that SIM cards purchased by the roadside from alleged accredited vendors of the telecommunications companies are being described as “recycled lines” by customers who bought them. Our correspondents saw many infractions after surveying mobile phone and SIM card vending hubs on the streets of Abuja city centre and some neighbourhoods; as well as in Nasarawa, Kano, Kaduna and Lagos states.
At the offices of Glo and MTN in Wuse 2 in Abuja and those of 9Mobile and Airtel within the same axis, vendors were seen discouraging people from going into the main telecoms offices, saying they could do the same job of issuing and registering SIM cards for them.
Many unsuspecting customers get lines through the process and later discover that it is either not well registered or the line belonged to someone else.
Musa Usman said he bought a SIM card for his brother by proxy, an act that is against the rule.
“I was asked to provide an ID card, but I told the vendor that it was for my brother and he registered it after I parted with extra N200. However, he told me that they were not allowed to register by proxy,” Usman said.
Glory Akor complained of how she kept receiving calls from strange people through her newly ‘registered’ MTN and Airtel lines, claiming the lines belonged to people they knew.
“I became disturbed when someone from the South kept calling through the Airtel line and addressing me as ‘Bolaji’ whom he claimed owned the SIM card. I was accused of stealing the line and I had to drop it,” she said.
Mr Sunday Okoh, a resident of Mararaba town in Nasarawa State, said he bought a ‘new SIM card’ and registered it at a vending hub along the Abuja – Keffi expressway.
“After paying N200, the SIM card vendor purportedly took my biometric data and captured my face with a camera. He said the line had been registered and I left.
“But two days after that, I was prompted through a message from Airtel that the line was not completely registered,” he said.
One line, two names in Lagos
In Lagos, the selling of improperly registered SIM cards has become a norm among many vendors, Daily Trust gathered. Though they would follow the normal procedure of registration by capturing the data of the buyers, the SIM cards would continue to show the details of another user.
Mrs Funmilayo Ayinla narrated how she visited one of the MTN outlets for a SIM upgrade, only to be told that the SIM belonged to another user.
“I did not believe the claim, but by the time they checked the SIM on their system, it showed another person’s name different from the name I used in registering it. They then asked me to go and do an affidavit for a SIM that I have been using for years,” she said.
Another user said, “I bought the SIM in Ikeja and I registered it immediately but people I called with the phone said the true caller showed one Adeola.”
Another cell phone user recalled how he lost his phone and went to retrieve the line only to be told that it had been allocated to another user.
“The funniest part of it was that my wife called me on this line and it was another woman who picked it. This is a common occurrence capable of breaking homes. Imagine my wife calling what is supposed to be my line and she started hearing another woman’s voice,” he said.
In Kano, some of the vendors said not all of them were licenced by the telecommunications companies while others act as agents of the licenced vendors.
‘‘Most of them don’t care about the security implications of not observing the protocols of issuing new SIM cards.
“They just want to make money by all means, especially from the N200 to N1, 000 they charge for registering new lines and ‘welcoming back’ old ones,” a security source said.
Ahmad Muhammad has been a vendor at Farm Centre since 2015 and he spoke on what it takes to become a genuine vendor.
“The recognised channel is to register with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). For me, after I registered, I proceeded to a telecoms company and acquired a licence after they inspected my place.
“The requirement for someone to register a SIM is his identity card (Voter’s card, National ID or driver’s licence) and then you will get registered.
“After getting the licence, you then buy the unregistered cards mostly at N10 or N20 and sell at N150 each. Apart from that, the company will pay you a commission for each SIM you register,” he said.
Muhammad, however, revealed the dubious aspect of some vendors.
“Some vendors will buy the SIM cards and register all of them at once and get the commission before selling to people. This is wrong,” he said.
A vendor at Bata GSM market, who did not want his name mentioned, said they buy SIM cards and register them using different names and then sell to people who do not want to ‘waste time’.
“Some people will just come and say they want SIM cards that are already registered and we sell those we have registered.
“Most of them say they don’t want to join the long queues inside the telecoms companies and they often complain about the procedures in the companies. It is faster to do the registration with us,” he said.
In Kaduna, most of such agents hang around the office complex of mobile telecommunications operators.
Our correspondent, who visited one of the offices along Yakubu Gowon road saw many agents around the office complex.
With a small device that looks like a tablet, a vendor could input your information, including name, age and occupation.
At the Sheikh Gumi Market, the same procedure is being followed.
Mrs Mary Amos advised Nigerians to properly register their SIM cards because of the security implications of not doing so.
“I visited a telecoms operator last week to buy and register a SIM card, but an agent offered to do that, and since I did not have to wait for long on the queues inside the building, I agreed.
“After the whole process, the agent told me that my SIM card had been registered. He then advised me to recharge it before the day runs out or it would be blocked.
“To my surprise, when I started receiving calls on the line, people that have the true caller app said the SIM card was carrying a different name and not mine,” she said.
A milestone but problem not yet over
According to data from NCC, as of March 2020, the number of improperly-registered SIM cards had dropped from 9.2m to 2.2m. The feat was in line with the provisions of the Telephone Subscribers Registration Regulations, 2011 of mopping up SIM cards that do not conform to recognized protocol.
The leadership of NCC further stated that the 2.2m ‘bad’ SIM cards had been deactivated in the last phase of the cleansing process, with a monitoring and enforcement team guiding the telecom firms to ensure proper registration.
Unregistered SIM cards threat to national security
The National Expert, Governance, Peace and Security Unit, UNDP Nigeria, Chukwuma Ume, described as ‘dangerous’, using unregistered SIM cards or the ones that were not properly registered.
He equally advised Nigerians to stop buying second-hand digital devices to avoid being linked to crimes they did not commit.
“There are great security implications for people buying or using unregistered SIM cards.
“Ordinarily, your SIM card should be traceable to you. It should have some form of identity about user or owner because in this time of terrorism, kidnapping, adversary frauds and other cybercrimes, one of the ways to checkmate that is to ensure that SIM card users are registered.
“We have had cases of people falling victims after buying SIM cards by the roadside, which had been previously used by people with criminal tendencies,” he said.
NCC, telcos speak
Reacting to our inquiries on the flouted rules and prevalence of improper SIM registration practices, NCC said it has regulatory provisions guiding the full deactivation and recovery of a dormant phone line.
The Director of Public Affairs, NCC, Dr Ikechukwu Adinde, said a SIM card or a line that is dormant for up to a year can be reassigned and sold to a new user.
“The commission also has regulatory provisions that prescribe the controlled environment where SIM cards must be registered and not with roadside agents.
“We have been monitoring compliance with the above regulations and to our knowledge; we don’t have any report of material non-compliance. However we greatly appreciate any evidential information that could act as a veritable lead to track the occurrences,” Adinde said.
The Chief Corporate Services Officer at MTN Nigeria, Mr Tobechukwu Okigbo, on his part, said they work with entities duly licensed by the NCC in their registration activities.
He also said the company has zero tolerance for non-compliance, adding that they continually conduct checks across their operations to enforce compliance with regulatory prescriptions.
Regarding the issue of recycling of SIMs, MTN said, numbers (lines) belong to the federal government of Nigeria and are managed by the NCC.
“Thus, operators are only assigned numbers for their operations on a lease basis. Consequently, to ensure efficient use of the numbering resource, the NCC Quality of Service Regulations permit operators to recycle numbers (that is, make the line available to another customer) where subscribers do not use their lines for a stipulated cumulative period of 365 days,” Okigbo said.
9mobile’s spokesperson, Chineze Amanfo, said the company accords the utmost priority to subscriber data management right from the point of registration, ‘‘which is why we only provide SIM card registration services in controlled environments in line with strict regulatory standards.
“It is a general industry practice for lines that remain dormant for an extended period to get reissued with the new subscriber details assigned accordingly,” she said.
“9mobile provides subscription-based SIM card Validity Extension service for its customers who may have reasons for prolonged non-use of their lines,” she said.
The Director, Corporate Communications and CSR at Airtel Nigeria, Emeka Oparah, said they also work with NCC to keep to the required guidelines for SIM registration.
“Airtel captures biometrics before activating any line. We validate each of the biometrics to find out whether they followed the regulations laid out by NCC. It is only after we have extracted this assurance that we activate any SIM,” he noted.
The Airtel official also confirmed SIMs could be banned. “If a customer has not made a valid usage in 48hours, we bar the customer. This is because we believe that a genuine customer must start using the SIM straight away. That is why such lines stop working after two days and this is in line with NCC guidelines to prevent pre-registered SIMs.”
He said they also monitor vendors. “Airtel security team in collaboration with NCC carries out a random market sweep to ensure that the guidelines are followed. We also make sure every KYC kit is mapped to a registered agent in a fixed location and we blacklist any kit that is found wanting.”