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ICASA blames Cell C litigation for ongoing number porting scams

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New regulations to provide greater protection for consumers regarding the porting process are still pending.
New regulations to provide greater protection for consumers regarding the porting process are still pending.

Telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has blamed the ongoing court battle with Cell C for the recent number porting scams that saw a number of South Africans losing their money to criminals.

Many South Africans recently fell victim to a number porting scam where their cellphone numbers were used in soliciting money from their contacts.

The criminals hijack a user’s WhatsApp account by taking control of their phone number, then ask contacts to send them money. The scammers ask the friends of the victim for an emergency cash donation by way of e-wallet transfer services.

Following these reports, SA’s biggest mobile operator Vodacom issued a statement saying: “It is important to note that number porting is regulated by ICASA, while the porting process is managed by Number Portability Company, an independently run company, as a result of 2001 amendments to the Telecommunications Act which mandated ICASA to prescribe measures to ensure number portability shall be introduced in 2005.”

ICASA published new regulations during the course of last year to provide greater protection for consumers regarding the porting process – the effective date of these new regulations is still pending.

Naturally, it said, ICASA is best-placed to comment when these might be implemented.

Illegal porting

In response, the regulator admits it is ICASA’s responsibility to regulate number portability.

“It is equally true that network operators must ensure they take the necessary measures to protect consumers when a request to port a number is made to them,” ICASA spokesperson Paseka Maleka told ITWeb via e-mail.

Furthermore, he says, ICASA continues to note cases that are reported on illegal porting of numbers.

According to Maleka, among others, the Number Portability Regulations of 2018 introduced the one-time password which was meant to empower consumers with the right to participate in a porting process by authorising or rejecting the porting related to their assigned numbers.

However, he says the regulations cannot be implemented currently due to the review application brought by one of the mobile network providers (Cell C) in the High Court.

“Current unauthorised ports activities could have been avoided if the regulations were not challenged and put on hold by this litigation which therefore delayed the implementation process.

“We, however, would like to encourage all affected consumers to lodge formal complaints with their network service providers and allow them an opportunity to respond to such complaints within a period of seven to 14 days,” he notes.

“Should there be no response from a service provider, or the response is unsatisfactory, consumers can lodge their formal complaints with ICASA on consumer@icasa.org.za and also attach a reference number received from a service provider so that ICASA can be able to investigate the matter further.”

High Court review

Last year, Cell C, SA’s third biggest mobile operator, launched an application in the High Court for the review and setting aside of ICASA’s decision to promulgate the Number Portability Regulations 2018.

No court date has been set for the hearing.

Zahir Williams, chief legal officer at Cell C, comments that ICASA published its final Number Portability Amendments Regulations in 2018, which Cell C challenged because if these regulations were to be put into effect, they will drastically change the porting process for consumers and mobile operators, and Cell C does not believe those changes are in the best interests for consumers’ choice.

There are two reasons these regulations are problematic for consumers, says Williams.

“First, they will give extra powers to the incumbent operator, and allow for the operator to persuade the porting customer not to leave that operator – a step called ‘winback’ – whilst introducing an unnecessary additional step for consumers.”

He points out that with an already complex process in place, many consumers are hesitant to try and port, and instead will often stay with a provider they are not 100% happy with.

Introducing this extra step will only serve as a further deterrent to customers who wish to choose an alternative provider, Williams says.

“Second, under the new regulations, the process will be an incumbent network-led process as opposed to how it currently stands being led by the recipient network. The incumbent-led process means the old network will initiate the porting process to the new network on behalf of the customer.

“This is exceptionally problematic, because the old network has a vested interest in keeping the customer and could potentially make this process difficult for consumers,” he says.

Zahir Williams, Cell C chief legal officer.
Zahir Williams, Cell C chief legal officer.

According to Williams, in a recipient network-led process, the customer will go to the new network and request the port; thereafter the process gets kicked off and the new network then initiates the process informing the old network that it is happening.

This means all that is required of the old network is authorisation, he explains. “The new network has a vested interest in making the porting process as easy as possible because they want that new customer to have a pleasant port experience.”

‘Alarmist SMS’

And there is actually a precedent for this, Williams argues.

“In 2016, the incumbent operators attempted to take over the current recipient-led process by forcing their outgoing porting customers to reply to a highly-charged alarmist SMS for any porting process to begin.

“The SMS from one of the networks had a very short time limit for response by the customer. If the customer did not respond to their SMS in time, the port was rejected. In some cases, even if the customer responded, the port was cancelled.”

He says at the time, the number of failed ports skyrocketed – which effectively prevented consumers from exercising their choice to move.

“This mechanism is also addressing something that already has a process that works, given the small number of times any of our customers have had unauthorised port requests. Yes, from time-to-time, it does happen, but in general the number of these has been drastically reduced.”

Williams believes if these regulations are allowed to stand as they are, the only result will be that the power consumers have to make the choice of which provider they want will be taken away.

“That power will instead lie with the operator customers want to move away from – who have a vested interest in making the process as difficult as possible.”

Avoiding scams

Vodacom urges that in the event of a port request, the customer will receive an SMS alerting them to a port-out request on their number.

To reject a fraudulent port, the customer must respond to the SMS with the number “1” within 50 minutes of receiving the SMS. As per current ICASA regulations, the port will be approved if no response is received.

It points out that “while we continuously enhance measures to protect customers from fraudulent activity, we are restricted in terms of what we can do from a porting perspective until such time the new ICASA regulations come into effect”.

All WhatsApp users can protect themselves from being scammed by activating the two-step authentication facility offered by WhatsApp.

To do this, go into WhatsApp, select settings, then select account and then two-step verification. Users will then be asked to enter and confirm a six-number password.

If someone tries to set up a new WhatsApp account on a different phone, it will ask them to enter the password, thus preventing criminal activity.

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