What you need to know:
- The UCC head of public and international relations, Mr Ibrahim Bbosa, expressed shock at how such forgery has penetrated the SIM card registration system.
- The chairperson of the parliamentary Committee on Security and Internal Affairs, Ms Doreen Amule (Amolatar Woman), said MPs were not aware of the fraud.
With Shs50,000, you can quickly and easily get a functional SIM card duly registered with mobile money services using a forged identity card.
The scam is so easy that you can get the SIM card within just 30 minutes upon payment.
This scam has left mobile telecom companies, security agencies and the regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), in shock.
In 2018, UCC issued new SIM card validation guidelines to all telecommunication companies to ensure registered telephone numbers match with the subscriber’s valid National Identification Number (NIN) on the National Identity card. The purpose was to fight crime by making criminals traceable on their registered SIM cards after commission of offences using their phone lines.
However, the new SIM card registration scam points to the futility of these efforts.
Our undercover investigations discovered that hundreds of Ugandans are acquiring SIM cards using forged documents with the help of a cartel of unscrupulous agents. The scam is hatched at Shoprite Shopping Mall on Entebbe Road and executed at a shop near Cooper Complex off Ssebaana Kizito Road.
How the scam is executed
To acquire a new SIM card without a National ID, all you need is Shs50,000. The syndicate involves telecom agents and security guards who man the MTN and Airtel SIM card registration centres at the shopping mall and brokers.
Shoprite Shopping Mall houses both MTN and Airtel service centres and a beehive of activity goes on inside, with hundreds of people scrambling to either replace or acquire new SIM cards.
Outside the service centres is a sea of brokers looking out for desperate people who do not have a National Identity Card or a refugee identity card but want to acquire new SIM cards.
Upon getting a client, the brokers contact an agent on phone. The agent guides them on the next step to take. All this happens in full glare of security guards at the entrances of the two service centres.
When I asked one of the security officers why brokers were doing dubious businesses around the two service centres, he said the brokers are ‘untouchable’ because they are ‘highly connected’, a reference to agents who have backers in high government offices.
As I stood seemingly stranded, a man offered to help. I asked whether I could get a new SIM without a National Identity Card and the man said it was possible at Shs50,000. The man revealed they register at least 30 such SIM cards a day. At Shs50,000, this translates into Shs1.5m a day.
He asked me to follow him up to some mobile money shop around Cooper Complex. Inside the shop is like a market day. Crowds of people flock there to replace or acquire new SIM cards.
Two women, who operate this secret mobile money shop near Cooper Complex, have all the equipment used in SIM card registration; a camera, computer, a biometric machine and registration phones.
I posed for a photo to start SIM card processing. After taking the photo, the two women started comparing some figures from a certain book and asked for my name and date of birth. Upon receiving the fake names and date of birth, they printed a refugee identity card bearing the Congolese names.
One of them then displayed some MTN mobile numbers on her phone and asked me to choose my preferred number, which I did.
Then she started entering other details from the forged refugee identity card. The SIM card was successfully registered and so was that of Airtel. Done deal.
Law on SIM card registration
According to the UCC rules, a Ugandan can only acquire a new SIM upon presentation of a valid National ID from the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA).
A foreigner can only acquire a SIM card upon presentation of a valid passport while a refugee needs a refugee identity card or any other authorisation letter from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).
My investigations found out that non-refugees are also acquiring SIM cards using forged refugee cards issued by the SIM card registration agents. Last Thursday, I acquired new MTN and Airtel SIM cards (0782835300 and 0708957854) under a pseudo name of Henry Mubunga using a refugee identity card, which was forged for me by the registration agents.
The identity card bears registration number 653-49173329 bearing Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as the country of origin. However, the registration agent backdated the date of issue of the identity card to February 18, 2018.
Particulars on the two SIM cards do not show the NIN because I was registered as a refugee. Refugees do not have a NIN.
This means the system of the two telecom companies, which issued the SIM cards also entered the forged details about myself who was registered as a Congolese, whereas I am Ugandan. I also established that people can acquire as many SIM cards as they wish, meaning they cannot be traced in the national data base in case of a criminal investigation.
The UCC head of public and international relations, Mr Ibrahim Bbosa, expressed shock at how such forgery has penetrated the SIM card registration system.
“That is news to me. If it’s happening, then it shows gaps in the refugee registration. We have to thoroughly investigate it because it is a national security breach. Though issuance of refugee identity cards is not in our jurisdiction, we can investigate it to understand where the problem is,” he said.
Asked about how often the regulatory body monitors the SIM card registration, Mr Bbosa said they have concluded a three-month evaluation exercise, which sought to ascertain whether all details of SIM card owners were successfully captured.
He also said at least 90 per cent of information on SIM card owners is in the database because telecom operators regularly submit reports about the SIM registration.
The communications adviser to the Prime Minister, Mr Julius Mucunguzi, said the OPM was not aware of any forgery of refugee identity cards. “If that is happening, then it should be investigated so that those who are involved can be brought to book because forgery of any form is illegal,” he said.
Asked to explain why OPM documents could easily be forged to compromise the country’s security, Mr Mucunguzi said he was not familiar with the technicalities of making refugee identity cards. He referred us to the commissioner for refugees for further explanation. The acting commissioner for refugees in OPM, Mr Gerald Mehnya, could not be reached for a comment. Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesperson Patrick Onyango said such registration facilitates crime in the country and blamed telecommunication companies for hiring people of questionable integrity.
“I am not aware that people are forging documents to acquire SIM cards. If this is happening, telecommunication companies are letting Ugandans down because we rely on them thinking they have integrity,” he said in an interview last week.
Mr Onyango cited the murder of Susan Magara in February 2018 where the kidnappers used different SIM cards to demand ransom but they could not be tracked on the same numbers because they were not reflected in the national data system.
Mr Onyango warned Ugandans against acquiring SIM cards through such illegal registration or using other people’s names, saying it is a risk. “In case someone in whose names you registered your SIM commits a crime, we shall definitely come for you,” he stated.
Asked why police are not taking action on the SIM card scam at Shoprite mall, Mr Onyango referred us to UCC, saying they are the regulators of telecommunication companies.
Telecoms deny forgery
Airtel’s public relations manager Sumin Namaganda said the issue of forgery of refugee identity cards is not under their jurisdiction.
“We are a highly regulated and compliant company and we have a very big investigative team to handle all cases of fraud. That matter is not in our jurisdiction because it is OPM that issues refugee identity cards,” she said in an interview.
Ms Namaganda said Airtel had not received any official complaint against any of their agents being involved in the forgery scheme.
MTN’s brand and communications manager Martin Ssebuliba said they were not aware of any forgery and fraud in the SIM card registration. He said they have a zero tolerance to fraud policy.
“We are a compliant company and if someone is involved in any fraud, disciplinary action has to be taken. We monitor our agents every now and then and during every visit, we emphasise zero tolerance to fraud,” he said.
MPs demand probe
The chairperson of the parliamentary Committee on Security and Internal Affairs, Ms Doreen Amule (Amolatar Woman), said MPs were not aware of the fraud.
“When government directed that all SIM cards be registered, we thought means of registration had been thoroughly investigated. I am surprised that fraudulent means are being used to register SIM cards,” she said. Ms Amule added that her committee would engage both security agencies and UCC to investigate the matter and direct all telecommunication companies to close all loopholes.