INVESTIGATION: With 1,000 Naira, A Criminal Can Falsify SIM Card Registration Details To Evade Justice In Nigeria Despite National Identification Number, NIN-SIM Link Policy

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In December 2020, the Nigerian Government mandated subscribers to link their Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards with their National Identity Numbers, (NIN) to improve national security and reduce identity fraud and other online crimes, but the process has been sabotaged by corrupt registration agents who continue to falsify SIM registration details and sell pre-registered SIM cards. This investigation exposes how anyone could misrepresent his true identity while obtaining a new SIM card to circumvent the administration of justice for a token in Nigeria. Abdulwasiu Olokooba reports.

In December 2020, the Nigerian Government mandated subscribers to link their Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards with their National Identity Numbers, (NIN) to improve national security and reduce identity fraud and other online crimes, but the process has been sabotaged by corrupt registration agents who continue to falsify SIM registration details and sell pre-registered SIM cards. This investigation exposes how anyone could misrepresent his true identity while obtaining a new SIM card to circumvent the administration of justice for a token in Nigeria. Abdulwasiu Olokooba reports.

SIM Cards Displayed By A Street Vendor At Post-Office Area, Ilorin, Kwara State. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

It’s noon, on a Tuesday in September. I arrived at Oja-Oba Market in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital. It wasn’t hard to locate the SIM registration centre at the market roundabout. Three young men and a lady were seen under a yellow umbrella branded with the MTN logo. I moved close to them to get their attention.

SIM Card Registration Centre At Oja-Oba, Ilorin, Kwara State. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

A young man clad in a Nike ash-coloured armless shirt attended to me after we exchanged pleasantries. I told him I wanted a new SIM card but did not have a NIN slip to submit for registration.

“For you to get a new SIM, we need to link it with your NIN,” the young man said.

But I told him I heard that there is a way around it for people who do not have NIN and do not mind paying more.

SIM Card Registration Centre At Oja-Oba, Ilorin, Kwara State. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

“Okay. That is Smart Connect,” he responded.

Does he normally get such requests? I thought.

He continued: “You will pay an extra charge. N500 is for the normal SIM card. But Smart Connect is N1,000.”

“Abeg, which one is Smart Connect again?” I asked.

“You don’t worry. What is important to you is for the SIM to work. It is us that know how to do it. The only problem with it is that you would not be able to retrieve it if it is lost because it is not registered with your NIN,” he explained.

SIM Card Registration Centre At Oja-Oba, Ilorin, Kwara State. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

I told him I wanted two MTN Smart Connect SIM cards and gave him N2,000. He collected the money and sent one of his boys to get them for me. A few minutes later, the boy reappeared with two MTN SIM card packs and handed them to me.

“After like one to two hours, you can insert the SIM but make sure you recharge on them,” he said while bidding me goodbye.

To determine whose identities were used to register the SIMs, I inserted them in my phone and logged them into MyMTN, a mobile application developed for all MTN users.

I discovered that the user details for one of the SIM cards, with this phone number 09134657168, show SILIFAT as the name of the owner. This means that SILIFAT is the first name of the person whose national identity number (NIN) was linked with the SIM card by the vendor.

A Screenshot Of A Smart Connect SIM Card Activated On MTN Mobile Application

But the second one, 08138058201 was not recognised as a valid MTN SIM by the application.

Section 11 of the Nigerian Communication Commission (Registration of Telephone Subscribers Regulations, 2021) instructed registration agents and subscriber registration solution providers to register and transmit to the Central Database the biometrics and other personal information of subscribers who request the activation of the licensee’s subscription medium.

Specifically, Section 12(4) of the statute provides that upon capturing and registration of the biometrics and the personal information of a new subscriber, the licensee (telecommunication company) shall verify and validate before activating the subscription medium on its network service and transmit the subscriber’s information to the central database.

This implies that before anyone could obtain a SIM card in Nigeria, telecommunication companies and their registration agents are instructed by law to capture his biometric data and personal information, including the national identity number (NIN) and transmit them to the central database which is managed and controlled by the Nigerian Communications Commission.

To comply with this, many Nigerians were subjected to the harrowing experience of being made to compulsorily wait in crowded, endless queues, to capture data to register and obtain the elusive National Identification Number (NIN) as they scamper to meet the January 19 and February 9 deadlines, and has put Nigerians at risk of contracting the dreaded Covid-19.

But SaharaReporters’ investigation shows that registration agents are clearly disregarding this requirement of the law. They routinely issue SIM cards without capturing the subscribers’ true biometric data and personal information, violating the Registration of Telephone Subscribers Regulations 2021.

Empathy Before Safety

As I alighted from the motorcycle that dropped me off at Popo Igbona Junction, Ode-Alausa Area, Ilorin, Kwara State, I sighted signage directing me to BOSTECH Communication. The shop was slightly crowded with waiting customers, each customer with a peculiar telecommunication problem.

A Signage Of BOSTECH Communication SIM Card Registration Centre At Popo Igbona Junction, Ode-Alausa Area, Ilorin, Kwara State. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

As I entered the shop, a young lady, who identified herself simply as Nafisat, asked me what I wanted. I told her I needed a new Airtel SIM card.

“It is N500, where is your NIN? She asked.

“That is where the problem is, I don’t have NIN, Aunty,” I responded.

“Haa, how do you want to get a SIM card without bringing your NIN? That is not possible again,” said one of the waiting customers. She continued: “At least, you should have come with one of your brother’s own. I know people who used their sibling’s own to register their SIM cards.”

“My NIN has an issue with spelling errors and date of birth. I was told to pay N17,000 to correct them. So that is why I’m not with it. I was told I could get Smart Connect even without my NIN,” I told the young lady who appeared to be one of the registration agents.

Her reaction after hearing my request showed that it was not the first time someone would make such a request. Without any further explanation, she understood the terms and conditions of my request. She bought an Airtel SIM pack from her bag.

She asked, “I hope you are ready to pay the extra charge sha and what do you want to use the SIM for?”

“I just want to use the SIM for data, and I hope the charge is not something much,” I said.

“Your money is N1,500,” she said, explaining to me that the N1,000 she added was due to the nature of my request. But after a brief negotiation between us, she agreed to collect N1,000 for the SIM card.

I was expecting her to give me a SIM card she had worked on, but I was surprised when this lady brought her own national identity number (NIN) slip out and started filling in her own personal information on the SIM card registration system.

Nafisat captured using her personal information and NIN to register a SIM card for this reporter: Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

While filling in the information, she kept emphasising why she felt obliged to help me.

Justifications for being unethical or guilty conscience? I wondered.

“I hope you will not use this SIM for illegal things like Yahoo because it is my NIN I am using to register it. Brother, please I hope I am safe. I do not want wahala ooo. Because if this SIM is used to do any unlawful things, it will be traced back to me.

“Please, do not let me regret helping you,” she begged while telling me to put my finger on the fingerprint scanner.

I was surprised and confused. “Why would personal information like names and NIN be yours and fingerprint identification be mine? Is that even possible?” I asked her in a tone that reflected my confusion.

“Don’t worry, anybody can do the fingerprinting. Just put it. There is no problem. The system will allow it,” the young lady assured me.

I put my thumb and index finger on the scanner as requested. The system allowed it without detecting that the biometric information was different from the NIN details and personal information supplied for the registration.

The lady then proceeded to capture her facial image with the system.

“The registration is done. Put it after like two hours,” she said while handing the SIM pack (with this number: 09122558434) to me.

A Screenshot Of The Airtel Cards Displaying Nafisat’s Information On Mobile Application

A search on the Airtel Mobile Application showed that Nafisat Saheed is the user’s name linked with the SIM. What this means is that Airtel Network Limited has failed (as a licensee under the Nigerian Communications Commission Registration of Telephone Subscribers Regulations, 2021) to verify and validate information supplied for the registration before activating the SIM on its network service, a clear breach of Section 12(4) of the Regulation. This telecommunication company is therefore liable to a penalty of N200,000 for this oversight, according to Section 19(3) of the Regulation.

This negligence would also make it simple for internet scammers and other criminally inclined individuals to assume Nafisat’s identity to perpetrate their crimes without being traced and expose her to liabilities arising from the use of the SIM card, as specified in Section 18 of the Regulation.

How Pre-Registered SIM Cards Are Sold Like Commodity

One Wednesday afternoon in September, I embarked on a trip to the Challenge area of Ilorin, Kwara State to see if there was a possibility of procuring a pre-registered SIM card — This is a practice where SIM cards registered with fictitious biometric data and personal information are activated with Mobile Networks and then made available to buyers who use such SIM cards within such networks without their personal information made available to the networks.

SIM Card Registration Centre At Challenge Area, Ilorin, Kwara State. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

The attendant at the first registration centre I went to was a lady in her early 20s. After we greeted each other, I told her I needed a pre-registered SIM card and did not mind paying extra money.

Her countenance showed her discomfort after she heard my request. Has she never received such an offer before? I wondered.

“Please, I really need that SIM card. I don’t mind how much it will cost. I will be happy if you can help me, Aunty,” I pleaded.

She responded that she did not sell it but she knew where I could get it if I was ready to pay an extra charge.

When asked why she did not have such SIM cards in her shop despite the lucrative nature of business, she said she considered the business too risky but was willing to take me to where I could get one if I was ready to pay for it.

A SIM Card Registration Agent. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

She later agreed to lead me to one of her colleagues well known for selling such pre-registered SIM cards.

Captured While Leading This Reporter To Where He Could Get Pre-registered SIM Card. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

After trekking for about three minutes, we arrived at a spot on the other side of the road. A young man clad in a brown shirt was seen sitting under an umbrella, with a SIM card registration system on the table before him.

Registration Agent Who Sold Pre-registered SIM Card For N1,500. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

The young lady told him what I wanted and he looked at him and said, “You will pay 2.5 (N2,500).”

I made a counteroffer to pay N1,500 and requested a Glo SIM card which he agreed to after several pleas.

Registration Agent Who Sold Pre-registered SIM Card For N1,500. Credit: Abdulwasiu Olokooba

“You will pay N1,600 because I have bought airtime of N100 on it,” he demanded while opening a bag beside him to bring out a Glo SIM card park (with this phone number: 09151495814) and gave it to me.

Activation of the SIM card on the Glo Mobile Application revealed that the SIM was registered with the information of Kehinde Abdulrafiu, a name I did not know its bearer.

A Screenshot Of The Pre-Registered Glo SIM Card Activated On Mobile Application

Meanwhile, selling pre-registered SIM cards is a serious offence in Nigeria. Section 19(1) of the Nigerian Communication Commission(Registration of Telephone Subscribers Regulations, 2021) clearly states, “Any licensee who fails to capture, or who pre-registers, register. deregister or transmit the details of any individual or corporate subscribers to the Central Database as specified in these Regulations or as may be stipulated from time to time by the Commission is liable to a penalty of N200,000.00 for each subscription medium.”

More Testimonies

In June, a man identified as Abode on Twitter narrated how a roadside SIM-card vendor allegedly attempted to sell his data to kidnappers and fraudsters by registering him twice.

In a series of tweets, Abode said he patronised a roadside vendor to get a new SIM card. He said the process went on smoothly until the vendor captured him twice, making him suspicious.

“So I queried him but he gave a flimsy excuse,” he said.

The man said immediately after the registration was completed, he got a welcome text message indicating he registered two numbers instead of one.

“I asked why two numbers were registered in my name instead of one, but the vendor said ‘it’s normal, that sometimes the issue is from the network operators,” he wrote.

“The next day, I went to the Glo office to file a complaint and the moment I mentioned what brought me there, their manager said “these guys again? Why doing these to innocent people?” That was when I realised the gravity of what just happened. The second number was deregistered, the case was reported and the guy was picked up.

“Questioning the vendor, he said they usually use people’s details to register other SIM cards which they resell to carjackers at a higher price.

“On further interrogation, he confessed that he uses people’s details to register SIM cards which they sell to fraudsters, ritualists, kidnappers and he makes a lot of money from the business.

“Now, imagine if he sold this second number to a kidnapper or a fraudster and when tracked, my picture and details would pop up and it would be difficult to deny.

“I’m putting this out here because a lot of innocent people are in prisons today because of cr!me they know nothing about.

“While doing your registration, please be attentive and report any suspicion to the right authority.”

Another Twitter user, @Lityl2 also shared his experience to corroborate Abodo’s story while reacting to his tweet.

He said, “This is true had same experience. Easter Monday I patronized a SIM card shop and the guy captured me several times just for one sim. Later that day got message that I registered for 3 different MTN lines. I called customer care and got the extra 2 blocked.”

Source: Twitter

Source: Twitter

“Hah…..I just checked now nd discovered I was linked to a number I wasn’t registered with or bought…..

@AirtelNigeria, please deactivate this line 07081420796…I didnt register or linked this with my BVN ooo…or else…” another Twitter user, D_Futuris wrote.

A Tweep identified as Emmaculate also narrated how he witnessed fraudsters patronising a registration agent that was very close to his friend’s shop.

He said, “Those guys sell pre-registered sims.. That I have seen from some people who went to purchase them.. I do have a friend whose shop is close to the road side SIM vendors. The yahoo boys that frequent besieged the guys are uncountable. Not I know how they do this. Omg.”

“Went to purchase a new Airtel SIM card. Did everything and the lady said it didn’t go through. However, I received an SMS that the SIM was registered. She proceeded in registering two additional SIM cards with same excuse. I bought all three SIM cards to be on the safe side,” a man identified as Theo added.

What Is At Stake?

Executive Vice-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (EVC/CEO) of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Professor Umar Garba Danbatta explained the security impact of call-masking and pre-registered SIM cards in one of his public presentations.

He said it increases the complexity for security agents in tracking fraudulent calls and provides increased anonymity for criminally minded individuals using the telecommunications network in the country.

While reacting to SaharaReporters’ findings, a telecom lawyer, Oludare Adeshina also described the system as corrupt, saying it puts innocent subscribers at risk of a wrong accusation in criminal investigations.

“Imagine using someone else’s identity to commit an offence. It will be too difficult to exonerate such a person from the crime because his name is the first suspect.

“It is high time NCC covered these lapses to save many innocent people,” he advised.

He faulted the telecommunication companies in the country for not creating a workable means to check their registration agents’ activities despite spending billions of naira on SIM card registration exercises in the country over the years.

It was reported that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the four operators of Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), spent about N46.1 billion on SIM card registration from 2010 to 2015.

The breakdown of the figure shows that NCC spent N6.1 billion while the four GSM operators, MTN, Globacom, Airtel and Etisalat (now 9mobile), collectively spent N40 billion, with each operator spending about N10 billion.

Data Show Insecurity, Cybercrimes Still Prevalent in Nigeria Despite Implementation of NIN-SIM Link Policy

Data available indicate that kidnapping and cyber frauds have now become a thriving market of oddities and illegalities, contrary to what Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, had in mind when he introduced the National Identification Number (NIN) into SIM card registration.

A recent analysis by SBM titled “The Economics of Nigeria’s Kidnap Industry” states that between July 2021 and June 2022, roughly N653.7 million in ransom was paid in Nigeria.

According to the research, over 500 kidnapping events were registered in Nigeria, and 3,420 persons were abducted, with 564 others slain in abduction-related violence over one year.

A N6.531 billion ($9.9 million) ransom was demanded throughout the period under consideration, but only N653.7 million ($1.2 million) was paid, according to the report.

These estimates do not account for the staggering amounts paid as a ransom (at least N100 million for each victim) by those hurt in the March 28, 2022, Abuja Kaduna train attack.

The horrific scourge of kidnapping is broken down by region, with the North-West recording a total of 177 incidents, 2,199 victims kidnapped, and 331 casualties; the North-east recorded 29 incidents, 54 victims kidnapped, and 17 casualties; the South-west had 54 incidents, 199 victims kidnapped, and 37 casualties; and the South-south recorded 67 incidents, 194 victims kidnapped, and 37 casualties.

These numbers are, to put it mildly, quite worrisome, even given the widely acknowledged data scarcity in Nigeria. More than anything, they demonstrate how Nigeria has evolved into a favourite haunt for individuals whose business it is to prey upon others, kidnap them, and force them to part with a significant amount of money, assuming they do not lose their lives in the process.

Likewise, of Nigeria’s 214 million people, 109 million have access to the internet. While this may sound like good news, it also presents a chance for those who want “sharp sharp” fortune to commit crimes in various digital forms.

The various arrests and convictions made by the anti-graft agency, EFCC so far show cybercrimes are nowhere near extinction. If anything at all, it is on the rise.

Nigeria loses about N127 billion yearly to internet fraud, an amount which represents 0.08% `of Nigeria’s gross domestic product, a report has revealed. The report also shows that the global yearly cost of cybercrime reached $6 trillion at the end of 2021.

NCC, Telecommunication Companies Keep Mum

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) failed to give its reaction to our findings. The Commission’s Head of Public Relations, Mr Reuben Mouka did not reply to several calls and text messages seeking his response to our discoveries.

Telecommunication companies have also kept mum even though emails were sent to them seeking their responses to the total disregard for the Nigerian Communications Commission (Registration of Telephone Subscribers Regulations, 2021) by them and their registration agents across Nigeria.

This report was published with support from the Civic Media Lab.