When people can buy a mobile phone SIM for a few hundred taka tops, a gang with the help of unscrupulous employees of carriers has been selling easy-to-remember phone numbers for as much as Tk 3 lakh.
They even went as far as deregistering a number and selling it to another person, providing fake death certificates to recover SIMs, and furnishing fake documents of ownership.
If customers have the money to spend, they would get them the phone number they desire, including the same last eight digits. A phone number with six zeroes at the end was recently poached and sold for Tk 3 lakh.
They have stores in e-commerce sites and people can choose numbers from a list and buy them, said officials who have knowledge about the mat-ter. Insiders claimed that this black market of SIMs fetch hundreds of crores taka every year.
The Bangladesh Telecomm Regulatory Commission (BTRC) in a probe dis-covered this and fined Grameephone and Banglalink Tk 5 crore each last week for the involvement of their employees in the ring.
The gang has been running this business for years. They collected SIM cards in different ways, including a method called “dual claiming” which al-lows them to recover a SIM card using fake documents with the help of dishonest employees of mobile operators, said a senior official who investi-gated the matter.
Sources in the carriers and the investigation team said the rouge employ-ees even used fake death certificates to deregister a SIM and sell it off.
The gang did this because the demand is there. People seek easy-to-remember numbers that are often labelled as “premium numbers”.
A chairman of an upazila in Pirojpur had bought a SIM that had the same last eight digits through this channel. The BTRC discovered that the SIM was replaced at least twice in two years without notifying the central bio-metric database of phone users.
The chairman was currently using a SIM that had the same last seven dig-its.
The Daily Star could not reach the chairman for comments as he was abroad.
The BTRC’s probe began after Customs Intelligence and Investigation Di-rectorate (CIID) Director General Md Shahidul Islam filed a complaint that his phone was not working and someone had claimed his SIM.
It found that the SIM was recovered illegally and then transferred to a dif-ferent carrier so that it becomes more difficult to track.
CIID DG Shahidul told The Daily Star that in October he suddenly found someone was using his number. He immediately informed the BTRC of the matter.
The BTRC later learnt that the same had happened to ICT State Minister Zunaid Ahmed Palak.
The telecom regulator also noticed some rules violations on biometric veri-fication by the second largest mobile operator Robi and fined it Tk 5 crore.
In the investigation, the BTRC found that the operators were guilty and fined them, Md Jahurul Haque, chairman of the BTRC told The Daily Star on Wednesday.
“It was a huge process and our team is certain that there are some un-scrupulous employees inside operators and we also asked them to take ac-tion against them.”
However, the three carriers said they were following the rules and regula-tions and that they had not violated any rules regarding the matter.
During its probe, the BTRC found stores in clickbd.com selling such SIMs. Browsing different e-commerce sites, The Daily Star found SIMs selling from Tk 1.50 lakh to Tk 2 lakh each.
Talking to a seller’s representative Anisul Islam Shahin, The Daily Star learnt that the demand for “premium numbers” starting with o17, 018, and 019 was more than the ones starting with 016 and 015. The ones start-ing with 013 and 014 had almost no demand.
“Premium numbers” of 016 and 015 series was selling between Tk 70,000 and Tk 80,000. Prices are reduced if the customer wants only the last five digits to be the same, he said refusing to share details about their trade.
The sellers tout proper biometric registration and home deliveries.
The BTRC officials said their investigation identified 800 SIMs that were used by the syndicate to run their trade and blocked them.
In separate statements, Grameenphone, Banglalink, and Robi claimed that they were following the registration process mandated by the regulator.
“As a compliant company, Grameenphone follows all regulatory conditions when selling SIM cards to customers. In such cases, some individuals may be taking advantage of the regulation on ownership transfer. In the inter-est of transparency, we may be open to some reasonable regulatory inter-vention to deter such fraudulent activities,” said Md Hasan, a deputy gen-eral manager of the country’s top carrier.
“As a company we do not sell any number which is defined as ‘premium’. Therefore, if any entity sells SIM cards claiming it premium, it has no con-nection with us and we have not authorised anybody to sell such types of numbers,” said Robi in a statement.
The second largest operator also said anyone with proper biometric verifi-cation can buy a Robi or Airtel SIM from their walk-in centres or author-ised selling points. “After buying a SIM, a person can transfer the SIM ownership by following the due process given by the regulator. Only mo-bile operators have legal access to the NID server for biometric SIM verifi-cation.”
The Daily Star sent screenshots of webpages selling Banglalink number to the carrier. Taimur Rahman, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer of Banglalink, said they checked the numbers and found that none of them were “premium numbers”.
“Banglalink always sells SIMs through its authentic formal channels in a compliant manner and as per the directives of the BTRC,” Taimur said.
However, the BTRC has asked Banglalink to fire 12 sales agents in connec-tion with the misappropriation of Palak’s and CIID DG’s numbers.
According to BTRC meeting minutes obtained by The Daily Star, Bangla-link in a statement claimed that two individuals, who had no connection with the carrier, were responsible and that its agents and employees had nothing to do with the matter.