LAHORE: The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) claims to have seized more than 2,000 biometric verified SIMs of telecom companies in Punjab being used for grey trafficking and fraud.
Officials say the government should take this matter seriously as such SIMs may be used in disruptive activities in the country.
About four years since the Biometric Verification System (BVS) was launched under the National Action Plan, the ‘misuse’ of verified SIMs continues unabated, exposing the shortcomings of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and telecom operators.
The need for the BVS was felt after the terror attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 in which more than 150 people, mostly children, were martyred.
“The FIA Cyber Crime Punjab raided many areas in Lahore and Multan and seized more than 2,000 BVS SIMs being used for grey trafficking and other fraudulent activities and arrested eight suspects during the last few days,” an official told Dawn.
He said the suspects managed to get such SIMs taking advantage of the loopholes in the system thus not only causing a loss of millions of rupees to the national exchequer through grey trafficking but also depriving citizens of handsome money by offering ‘prize schemes’. “Such SIMs are also used by fraudsters who get pin-code of the credit/debit cards from citizens by introducing themselves as officials of an intelligence agency or army,” he said, adding that it was not easy to trace such suspects as they got BVS SIMs in the name of the people (mostly in rural areas) who had no idea that their information was being misused.
“The misuse of BVS SIMs for grey trafficking and other such activities is alarming. It is feared that such SIMs may be used for disruptive activities, therefore immediate steps are needed by the PTA and telecom operators to deal with this problem,” the official said.
Asked how fraudsters laid hands on such a huge number of BVS SIMs, PTA spokesperson Tayyaba Iftikhar told Dawn that the aim of BVS was to ensure “proof of life” whereby SIMs were issued only after biometric verification of subscribers’ finger/thumb impressions. “Each verified SIM is traceable to its CNIC owner and the sale channel which issued it.”
According to the PTA, after conclusion of re-verification drive in 2015, a total of 98.3 million SIMs which were not verified through BVS were blocked. “By Sept 30, 2018, count of active connections is 152 million, all of which have been verified through BVS.”
About measures to stop the BVS SIMs falling in the hands of disruptive elements, the PTA spokesperson said: “The PTA is not a law enforcement agency. All instances of illegal issuance of SIMs, reported to PTA, are forwarded to the law enforcement agency(s) for further investigation and punitive action under the Telecom Act 1996 and PECA 2015.”
When asked why the misuse of SIMs continued despite the BVS launched four years ago, Ms Iftikhar said: “Effective implementation of the law can have a positive impact and help in limiting fraud cases.”
As regards grey trafficking, the PTA said it had rationalised the international termination rates to eliminate the margins for grey traffic. “On the technical front, PTA actively identifies illegal termination channels to mitigate them as well as share relevant information with the FIA for law enforcement actions against grey operators. The said actions have helped increase legitimate traffic from around an average of 450 million minutes per month during 2014 to around an average of 900 million minutes per month during 2018,” it said.
Currently, a technical system on PTA’s directions was being deployed by the telecom industry, envisioned to identify grey channels which employ sophisticated evasion techniques to ensure that bulk of grey traffic was blocked prior to termination, the PTA said.
Another official was of the view that the PTA needed to improve the BVS, making the whole procedure foolproof so that SIMs might not fall in the hands of fraudsters, grey traffickers or disruptive elements. “The PTA needs to take immediate steps binding the cellular companies to have a system in place at their franchises or small outlets to stop misuse of the BVS. A fresh effort is needed to plug loopholes in the BVS as it should not be treated as a forgotten step of the past,” the official added.
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2018