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Sim Card Scam
There was disquiet a couple of weeks ago that the national telephone users' subscriber identification module (SIM) card registration exercise may have been compromised. If it proves to be the case, it would be a particularly troubling dimension for the security agencies that have been severely challenged of recent in trying to contain the growing and spreading criminal activities in the country. This is because it emerged that pre-registered SIM cards were seen being freely hawked in a number of locations in Abuja.
The registration exercise was undertaken by the country's telecommunications operators; the National Assembly got involved in the programme when it approved a massive injection of public money, despite widespread objection and the plea by the service providers that they could do it on their own, although within a much longer timeframe.
When it was mooted in 2010, one of the goals of the exercise was to stem the high volume of cybercrime, including the use of unregistered telephone lines by kidnappers to facilitate transactions for the payment of ransom, making it difficult to track them.
While the concept was acknowledged as being beneficial, the utility of such registration as a tool for identifying criminals and fighting crime has not been properly documented or evaluated. The reports of sale of pre-registered SIM cards will make such assessment even harder to make.
The fear therefore is that the objectives of the exercise are in danger of being defeated.
Under the regulation guiding the registration exercise, all new SIM cards purchased from February 14, 2011, can be used to receive calls and text messages only; the holder of an unregistered card cannot make calls or send text messages, until all the registration procedures are followed.
The discovery of pre-registered SIM cards being sold in the open market is only the latest in a series of such breaches since the registration exercise began.
In August 2011, the Nigerian Telecommunications Commission (NCC) issued a stern warning on the issue to all telecom operators, SIM card vendors, retailers and the public, drawing their attention to the consequences of purchasing and selling pre-registered SIM cards. Citing the Regulation of Registration of Phone Subscribers, officials of the NCC said that those who traded in or used pre-registered SIM cards risked a hefty fine or imprisonment, or both, under the NCC Act of 2003.
Just over a month later, in September, NCC officials announced the arrest of people they alleged were behind the fraudulent sale of pre-registered SIM cards.
The officials disclosed that the NCC's Monitoring and Compliance Department, in collaboration with some unspecified security agencies, arrested the suspects in the Federal Capital's Maitama District, in the area popularly known as GSM Village.
The NCC needs to do further investigation to determine whether in the rush to beat the deadline for all SIM cards to be registered, some persons or organisations took that advantage to make multiple registration of these cards and have put them out for sale. Or, on the other hand, if the telecoms companies ignored the rules to make quick money in a lucrative consumer market that Nigeria is.
Otherwise, with a 6.1 billion naira budget for the NCC to conduct the exercise, there is no excuse now why hundreds, possibly thousands, of these dubious cards should be in the market and are operational within the national communications networks. The security implications for that alone should have informed a much tighter procedure and more rigorous exercise.
In retrospect, perhaps it would have been prudent and more cost-effective if the regulators had allowed the operators the three and a half years they envisaged would be required to conclude the exercise. As it turned out, the NCC, apparently under pressure by security agencies for quick results, demanded a much shorter period.
Addressing the immediate problem would require a painstaking and perhaps laborious process of the matching of suspect cards with the biometric data that are available. The security situation however demands that all doubts regarding every mobile phone in use in Nigeria be resolved. The NCC and the telecom operators should ensure that this done, and that people already custody for the offence are prosecuted and, if found guilty, punished appropriately.
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