UGANDA: UCC moves to curb ‘SIM box’ fraud costing mobile operators millions

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Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) is investigating a major SIM Box Network busted over the weekend, where hundreds of SIM cards were being used to illegally terminate inbound international calls.

SIM Box operations are considered one of the gravest offenses, according to UCC, depriving the Government of Uganda hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

The activities of the fraudsters had led to significant losses to legal operators in international phone call revenues, police and UCC told reporters on Monday at a joint media briefing.

Mr. Ibrahim Bbossa, Head of Public Relations and International Relations at UCC, said that eight suspects were arrested following a covert operation conducted over the weekend by detectives attached to it where thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment capable of rerouting incoming international phone calls were seized.

He also revealed that raids grew out of a brief attempt to confront SIM boxing, a practice that has for the last one decade been siphoning off millions in global incoming call rates from the local industry.

Eight suspects who are in police custody pending further investigation were apprehended from the areas of Masanafu, Rubaga division, Kasubi, Clement Hill Road in Central Division and Nakawa market.

The seized SIM boxes were recovered with over 1,600 registered SIM cards.

SIM box fraud occurs when individuals or groups purchase SIM cards that offer free or low-cost calls with the intent of using them for international calls.  Using various devices, the SIM cards are then used to channel long-distance or international calls away from mobile network operators and register them as local calls on their networks, costing operators substantial losses in international phone call revenues, according to UCC.

The perpetrators use what is known as a SIM box, a device that holds stacks of SIM cards on one side and is connected to the Internet on the other side. Instead of international calls coming in through the traditional international gateways, these operators receive the calls through the internet and then using the SIM box, re-originate the calls through the stacks of SIM cards as if the calls are being originated by local customers.

That way, Mr. Bboosa said they create the impression that those calls were generated locally, so they pay only local rates and rob the country of huge sums of money.

He described such activities as an “act of sabotage” and vowed to immobilise the fraudsters’ efforts to illegally siphon Uganda’s revenue.

3,000 and $10,000, a fixed-line internet connection, one operator and an array of local SIM cards, the clandestine operation is easy to set up and even easier to leave behind.

The unlicensed operations route calls through their own internet gateway servers (the SIM boxes) instead of a licensed gateway (owned by companies like MTN Uganda or Airtel).

The international firms that relay the calls go for the lowest bidder, undercutting Uganda’s licensed gateway operators, who charge about USD.19 Per Minute for calls abroad.

SIM box operators charge about two cents per minute to the international call traffic carriers before relaying the call through domestic SIM cards at almost zero cost.

Neither the caller nor the receiver is aware the call has been routed through a SIM box instead of a licensed international gateway, except when a domestic number shows up or the quality is especially poor, with dropouts and echoes.

Uganda has been grappling with the lingering menace of SIM box fraud in 2017, six individuals were arrested, and some convicted in court after they were found to have SIM box devices.

They had up to 250 SIM cards that they used to re-route the calls. Increased surveillance by all the telecom companies and the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) played a role in having these individuals arrested.

UCC has asked telecom operators to have SIM box detection tools that need to be updated often because the SIM boxers keep finding new ways of bypassing the traditional operators.

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