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Telcos urge user caution as Hawks nab SIM swap suspect

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 14 Mar 2022

SA’s telcos are stepping up efforts to curb SIM swap fraud, which has been on the rise in the last six months.

Speaking to ITWeb today, operators say identity or subscription fraud has, unfortunately, become a threat impacting network operators and customers around the world, and SA is no different.

SIM swapping has become a popular scam in SA as fraudsters pose as a legitimate cellphone account-holder by using fake identity documents.

The assailant requests a SIM swap from the real cellphone account-holder’s mobile network provider so they can have access to their account and number on a different device.

A person suspected of the crime, Enoch Khumalo (21), was scheduled to appear in the Mthatha Specialised Commercial Crimes court today.

Khumalo was arrested last week by the Mthatha team of the Hawks Serious Commercial Crime Investigation unit in Johannesburg on fraud allegations.

“It is alleged that in June 2019, the complainant discovered her cellphone had no network and she contacted the service provider. She was informed that someone did a SIM swap on her number. A month later, she discovered she lost more than R179 000 after several fraudulent transactions. The matter was reported to the Hawks for investigation,” the Hawks said in a statement.

Over the weekend, social media was abuzz with similar stories of customers whose SIM cards were swapped without their knowledge.

Real menace

Reacting to ITWeb’s query on the matter, Vodacom, MTN and Cell C acknowledged the problem, saying any type of illegal activity that occurs on their networks is taken very seriously and measures are taken to prevent it.

MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, says that over the past four to six months, there has been a rise in the “threat” of a SIM swap.

“The fraudsters claim to be from the MTN fraud department and require the customer to provide an OTP to stop the SIM swap. If the customer provides the OTP, the fraudster will have access to their MTN app. The fraudsters will then attempt to increase credit limits and purchase MTN products and services to further share or to on-sell,” she says.

“Identity or subscription fraud has unfortunately become a threat impacting network operators and customers around the world, as criminals constantly work to find new ways to beat fraud prevention systems.

“At MTN, we aim to protect customers from fraudulent transactions that often originate elsewhere, often through identity theft. ID theft is often just the start of the fraud, with a criminal getting hold of sufficient personal information from an identity document to initiate the fraudulent activity.”

O’Sullivan says in SA, there has been number of data leaks or breaches, resulting in personal information being easily available to fraudsters.

However, she says MTN has put in place measures to protect customers, including a one-time password that is required to access all applications that handle customer data.

“Both MTN employees and third-party contractors require OTP to access MTN applications. To use OTP on a consumer application, the user/agent/employee must first register and be authorised by an internal governance procedure.”

She says every month, all access is reviewed to ensure users still need the access provided the month before. To protect all customer databases from unauthorised access, MTN has a 24-hour monitoring and detection system in place and the notifications are routed to a central monitoring centre, which is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Protection is the defence

Vodacom says, in general, it has seen an increase in targeted activity by organised cyber crime syndicates and it continues to work closely with law enforcement units so that criminals are arrested.

It says the vast majority of SIM swaps are legitimate and only a very small percentage are fraudulent.

“In fact, over the last two financial years, fraudulent SIM swaps have decreased by circa 14%. Nonetheless, Vodacom takes any type of illegal activity that occurs on its network very seriously and we do our best to prevent it. As such, we have a dedicated forensic services team that investigates all cases of fraud, including SIM swaps, and all incidents are reported to the South African Police Service either by the complainants or by Vodacom as required,” a Vodacom spokesperson says.

“To protect customers from SIM swap fraud, Vodacom notifies customers via SMS whenever a SIM swap attempt is made. The message specifically communicates that we have received a request for a SIM swap and if the customer suspects fraud to contact us immediately. To further protect customers, there is a two-hour delay with all SIM swap requests.”

Lourens Swanepoel, executive of forensic services at Cell C, comments: “SIM swap and/or banking fraud is an industry problem that is not isolated to a single network but affects all network providers and financial institutions.”

For Cell C, he says, through various collaborations with the financial sector and other network providers, “we have been able to implement proactive measures that have aided in the curb of SIM-related crimes”.

He adds: “Partnerships as industry players are key in ensuring customers are protected from cyber criminals. Over and above proactive security measures, which need to be evaluated and improved regularly, education is critical. Customers need to be educated on the cyber crimes that exist and exercise vigilance to ensure they protect themselves and their information.”

Telkom hadn’t responded to ITWeb’s requests for comment at the time of publication.