Saturday, August 8, 2009

SIM ‘banks’ being used to drive illegal incoming overseas calls

The Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GT&T) is cautioning both its cellular service vendors and members of the public to steer clear of what it says is a costly and potentially dangerous racket that employs multiple cellular SIM cards to facilitate rogue telephone ‘services’ that bypass the company’s network.

GT&T believes that there could be as many as 600 illegal services in various parts of the country running ‘bottom house’ services that bypass the company’s legal network, routing overseas calls directly to local telephone numbers. The illegal service has cost the company around US$2M in lost revenue over the past eight months, GT&T’s Chief Financial Officer Yog Mahadeo told Stabroek Business last Friday.

The illegal operators employ banks of SIM cards, each of which represents a telephone number. The SIMS are fed calls by a satellite facility that receives the signals or calls and feeds them to the SIM bank which then routes the calls to local numbers. “In such cases, when you receive an overseas call the number that shows up is a local number. You only become aware that it is an overseas call when you answer it,” Mahadeo told Stabroek Business. He said that a feature of calls that are made through illegal services is poor voice quality resulting from the small, unsophisticated nature of the operations. “The problem here is that the local party is unaware of the illegality of the exercise and blames GT&T for the quality of the call,” Mahadeo said. This newspaper understands that both GT&T and DIGICEL SIM cards are used in the ‘banks.’ However, DIGICEL declin-ed to offer a comment on the matter.

Mahadeo told Stabroek Business that the company has already alerted subscribers to the racket and has asked that in cases where local numbers show up for overseas calls, reports should be made to the com-pany.”People have been making such reports and we have come up with around 400 numbers per week that are making bypass calls,” Mahadeo said.

GT&T Chief Executive Officer Major General (ret’d) Joe Singh told Stabroek Business that the move to alert the public to the bypass racket and to the wider dangers associated with the proliferation of SIMS will be stepped up significantly in the period ahead and will be attended by an incremental effort to “go after” the offenders which will involve both the regulatory bodies and the law enforcement agencies.

The lucrative nature of the rogue service has significantly increased the demand for SIM cards the sale of which is restricted to two services per customer by GT&T. Additionally, subscribers wishing to secure a cellular service are required to present vendors with several forms of identification and to provide specific personal information including proof of address. These sales records are then forwarded to GT&T.

Mahadeo said that by and large, this system has worked well, bypass operators have been pressing other persons into service to purchase SIM cards for them. He said that these buyers move from one vendor to the next, buying two SIM cards during each transaction. “At the end of a day each buyer may well secure up to a dozen cards. Those cards are then sold to the bypass operator.”

While both Mahadeo and Singh told Stabroek Business that the loss of revenue is a worry to the company both say that the far greater worry is the proliferation of SIM cards and implications which Singh says go “far beyond the revenue issue.” Mahadeo says that access to multiple SIMS which allows users to make telephone calls then dispose of the numbers can significantly aid criminal enterprise “and, conceivably, compromise national security.” He said that the company had not ruled out the possibility that some of its own vendors may be involved in an illegal SIM sales racket and that both vendors and some members of the public had been interviewed by the company based on sales records. This newspaper has seen sales records that reflect multiple SIM purchases by individuals. Mahadeo said, however, that GT&T was yet to secure evidence linking multiple SIM purchases to any bypass operation.

Singh said that while GT&T had made the authorities aware of the practice he was less than enthused with the official response given the potential dangers posed by the proliferation of SIM cards. He said that he believed that curbing the SIM racket and “going after” the bypass operations required the collective intervention of all the stakeholders including the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU) and the two licensed telephone service providers. Mahadeo told Stabroek Business that while SIM rackets were not unique to Guyana the scale of the problem here was significant. He said that in the immediate term the company was concerned with alerting the public to the dangers of securing cellular services for third parties. ‘In cases where the police require information of phone use that may be related to criminal activity we are required under the law to provide that information. In those cases it is the purchaser of the service who may not necessarily be the user of the phone who is implicated,” he added.