By Sunday Akin Dare
If you receive a lot of foreign calls, chances are that quite a few of them have reached your handset bearing a local GSM or fixed line number. In industry parlance, what you got is called a “masked call”. What has happened is that your foreign contact has called you directly with their number, but someone has manipulated something somewhere between you and your caller, changing the caller’s number to the strange local number you see on your handset.
Close industry watchers will recall that incidence of call masking significantly reduced after the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) took decisive actions against some of its licensees earlier in the year for this unfair, irritating, risky and ultimately illegal practice. So determined was NCC to stamp out the practice that it invoked one of its most extreme regulatory sanctions in its arsenal and suspended the operating license of an indicted major licensee.
“Masking and SIM boxing are a bit like virus attacks – perpetrators continue to devise complicated strategies; and as regulators and other stakeholders deploy “anti-masking” “anti-virus” solutions, they try to up their game.”
Sadly however, ”masking” persists, including the more prevalent one called Sim Boxing. Simbox or Interconnect Bypass Fraud is one of the most prevalent frauds in the telecom industry today. This fraud costs the industry about USD3Billion in lost revenue. It happens when calls made via the internet are sent to Simboxes (machines that house SIM cards) which redirect this illegal VoIP traffic onto mobile networks.
NCC is aware of this menace and even just one case is too many for the NCC, because of the grave implications call masking has for the social, economic, security and communications well-being of Nigerians. ”Victims” who have lost important social or business calls, or have had serious relationships damaged due to the practice are justified to ask: what is going on, what is the NCC is doing about masking, and whether ’phone users should be hopeful that this menace will end soon?
Masking (or ”refiling” when a number is deliberately classified to a different route and “SIM boxing” to describe one of the many tools in use) has many dimensions. In the first scenario, the perpetrator is somewhere between the two networks. Telecoms is a game of volumes, and some players have positioned themselves as middlemen who aggregate huge volumes of traffic bound for the country from several operators around the world. To make their margins, they compress the calls and strip them of their original numbers before terminating them on local networks. In another scenario, the calls reach Nigeria in their original form (i.e. with Calling Line Identity), but are ”masked” or disguised by a local player who presents it to the terminating network as a local call. Thus disguised, the perpetrator pays the local player the lower domestic interconnection rate and pockets the differential between this and the higher amount he collected in foreign exchange.
It is important to appreciate that call masking is both complicated and widespread. The explanation above has been very much simplified for easy understanding.
Just like Nigeria, other countries are fighting the menace, deploying several regulatory, economic and technology tools. Masking and SIM boxing are a bit like virus attacks – perpetrators continue to devise complicated strategies; and as regulators and other stakeholders deploy “anti-masking” “anti-virus” solutions, they try to up their game. The NCC is nonetheless up to the task. We are determined to prevail, and so we shall.
What is NCC doing about masking, in specific terms? NCC’s determined actions can be grouped into three. First are the Regulatory actions.
As noted above, NCC took the unprecedented step of suspending a major operating license in February. Although the suspension of Medallion Communications Ltd. was later lifted (since the company fulfilled the requisite conditions); this was an unprecedented sanction on a major licensee. In addition, very strong censure was visited on other clearing houses, and some licenses were disconnected from the national network pending compliance with necessary regulatory requirements. All of these measures were taken after painstaking investigations with the participation of security experts from the Office of the National Security Adviser and the Department of State Services.
Another regulatory measure is the tightening of SIM registration processes across all networks. The reader may recall that a broad-based task force to deal with SIM registration failings was established in October 2017. The task force has made far-reaching recommendations which are now being implemented. A few of the actions the industry will activate in the days to come may cause inconvenience to some, but, it is in our national best interest that we show forbearance and see this process to its logical conclusion. Tightening up the SIM registration process would not only reduce the availability of SIMs for SIM-boxing, it would also help address the security issues around the availability of pre-registered or fraudulently registered SIMs.
“At the end of the day, masking profits no one, not even the domestic perpetrators. Their short-term commercial gains are easily wiped-off by long-term considerations and the very threat they pose to industry sustainability.”
The second set of actions are the technical measures. These include the barring of about 750,000 numbers assigned to 13 operators from the national network. This numbers were suspected of being used for masking and NCC took a hard, no-compromise stance to withdraw their use.
Now, since the “action” happens on their respective networks, NCC law requires operators to take necessary steps to ensure that their networks are not used for the commission of crime. As such we insist, and have verified, that operators-commission solutions to tackle the menace on their respective networks. Monitoring is continuous. Meanwhile on its own part, NCC has just completed a painstaking solutions evaluation process and is rolling out a sophisticated SIM-box hunting technology which will enable us track perpetrators anywhere they may be in-country.
Readers would probably have noticed a series of publications from the NCC asking persons who have received masked calls to supply details to the commission. The objective is simple. Operators are deploying a number of technical solutions to try to identify perpetrators (we cannot give details here for obvious reasons). However, these solutions will be more effective if the direct victims, i.e. the customers supply details to us for investigations. In addition to the social media channels we have already deployed, we will shortly roll out short-code and USSD channels for ease of reporting. We would be counting on the co-operation of everyone who has experienced call masking in whatever shape to provide us with the details for investigation, apprehension and punishment of perpetrators.
The last question is whether telephone users should be hopeful that this menace will end soon.
As we noted above, masking is not peculiar to Nigeria, and no country has yet discovered the “silver bullet” to eliminate masking completely. NCC is nevertheless determined to do whatever needs to be done to eliminate the menace in the shortest possible time. That is our promise.
At the end of the day, masking profits no one, not even the domestic perpetrators. Their short-term commercial gains are easily wiped-off by long-term considerations and the very threat they pose to industry sustainability. The government loses significant revenue from taxes due from operators (Nigeria does not charge surtax on international calls). The local terminating network loses significant direct and indirect revenues (e.g. from the opportunity cost of masked transactions). Consumers lose from quality of service and trust perspectives. The work of law enforcement and security agencies are greatly compromised, etc. All of these underscore the need for the full co-operation of all stakeholders at all ends of the telecoms value chain.
Our determination to end this menace brooks no compromise. There are areas where NCC is normally loathe to intervene, such as the pricing of services not within our control. However, indications are that masking may force the Commission’s hands, and that we will have to take necessary regulatory measures regarding pricing of international traffic.
The success of the measures detailed above depends on the support of critical stakeholders. We are making this unusual intervention to seek that support even as we provide more clarity on the subject. We shall therefore be counting on the support of all Nigerians to succeed in this endeavour.