R1m illegal SIM cards seized from suspected fraudsters

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo
Johannesburg, 11 Jul 2024
Illegal SIM cards can lead to identity theft and unauthorised access to sensitive information.
Illegal SIM cards can lead to identity theft and unauthorised access to sensitive information.

The Communication Risk Information Centre (COMRiC) has welcomed the arrest of individuals suspected to be involved in a major SIM card fraud operation in Gauteng and the Free State.

The non-profit organisation (NPO) is dedicated to protecting communication networks from criminal activities.

Last week, the provincial spokesperson for the Hawks, lieutenant colonel Zweli Mohobeleli said police investigators reacted to information about two houses in Woodlands, Bloemfontein, where the suspects were using unknown machines to clone data and manufacture SIM cards.

“A search and seizure operation, duly authorised by the court, was conducted. SIM cards of different service providers to an estimated value of over R1 million, suspected cloning machines, cash, two firearms and rounds of ammunition were among the items recovered at the two houses,” Mohobeleli said.

In South Africa, the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act requires the details of all telecommunication users to be registered, and aims to assist law enforcement agencies in tracking criminals that are using telecoms services for illegal activities.

Thokozani Mvelase, CEO of COMRiC, commends the efforts of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and various partners in bringing the alleged perpetrators to justice.

According to COMRiC, in total, 48 suspects were arrested, with 45 in Bryanston, Johannesburg, and three in Bloemfontein. Six are Chinese nationals and thought to be ring leaders, and the remainder are all foreign nationals, it says.

Illicit activity

The NPO notes that over two million SIM cards were seized in these operations. It is crucial to note that these were not fake or cloned cards, but based on tested samples, they are genuine and active on networks but illegally obtained, it states.

COMRiC explains that the confiscated machines were not used to make SIM cards, as has been reported, but were bulk SMS messaging machines. This indicates organised criminal activity, says Mvelase.

A bulk SMS messaging machine, also known as an SMS gateway or SMS server, is a device or software system designed to send large volumes of text messages to multiple recipients simultaneously.

The organisation says these machines are commonly used by businesses, organisations and individuals for various purposes, including marketing, alerts, notifications and communication with customers or members.

It adds that the Bloemfontein arrests followed a comprehensive operation by a multi-faceted team comprising various police units, government departments, private security and forensic investigators.

Mvelase says: “We have now formed a joint task team with law enforcement officers, and we are supporting SAPS in its investigation. 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. As the investigation progresses, we will determine if and what crimes were committed.”

COMRiC says it congratulates the police and all involved parties for their outstanding work and remains committed to continuing its close collaboration with law enforcement to protect communication networks from criminal activities.

The proliferation of illegal SIM cards has far-reaching consequences that impact individuals and the broader telecommunications infrastructure, it warns.

Hide and seek

“Illegal SIM cards can lead to identity theft and unauthorised access to sensitive information, resulting in monetary loss and privacy breaches for victims. Criminals can use these SIM cards to bypass security measures, gain control of bank accounts, and perpetrate fraudulent activities without the victims’ knowledge. The repercussions for individuals are often devastating, as they must navigate complex processes to restore their identity and recover lost funds,” the NPO says.

“On a systemic level, the use of stolen SIM cards undermines the integrity of the telecommunications network, posing significant challenges to service providers and regulatory authorities. These illicit activities can lead to network congestion, reduced service quality, and increased operational costs for providers that must invest heavily in security measures and fraud detection systems.”

Additionally, COMRiC points out that the presence of stolen SIM cards complicates law enforcement efforts to track and apprehend criminals, as they obscure the digital footprints necessary for effective investigation.

This erosion of trust in the security and reliability of telecommunications networks can hinder economic growth and digital innovation, as businesses and consumers become wary of potential vulnerabilities, it concludes.