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Three emerging telecoms fraud threats facing Africa

Africa has witnessed increased mobile internet coverage. The GSMA reports that “by the end of 2021, 22% of the total population in Sub-Saharan Africa was using mobile internet (and 40% of adults over 18 years of age).” The association also states that during the past five years, the proportion of the population covered by a mobile broadband network has more than doubled.

Today 3G, 4G and 5G mobile handsets make up over half of all connections in the region, according to the GSMA. This means greater connectivity across Africa and with the rest of the globe. But this easier access enables connections for fraudsters and scammers, making it easier for corrupt actors to swindle telcos and consumers.

The bad news is that telecoms fraud occurs in diverse ways, making detection and prevention difficult.

For the past six months, I have been getting one-ring calls from several international numbers from different nations: The Netherlands, Spain, Mozambique, Great Britain, South Africa and Morocco.

Caught by the con

Two weeks ago, I woke up to another missed call from an international number. This time, it was Belgium (+32) and seemed legit, much like all the others before it. I didn’t have any friends based in this European nation, though. I took a chance, went with my instinct and dialled the number. Someone answered after the first ring but kept silent.

Previous calls lasted about 10 seconds before I ended it. But with the Belgium call, I held on for a full minute. After hanging up, I realised for the first time that my network provider charged me a higher-than-usual amount for this call.

It was then that I realised I had fallen victim to the Wangiri scam. A common telecoms fraud tactic, careful inspection of my billing showed that the con artists had been running the scam for half a year before I noticed.

In 2020, Kenya experienced a surge of Wangiri calls. Essentially, the trick is to ring someone using an international number and hope their curiosity to return this foreign call kicks in. But calling back means unsuspecting victims may get billed a high charge instantly that the scammers cash in on because they claim this fee.

Reporting Wangiri calls in Africa rarely yields a positive outcome. The premium rate numbers scammers use are typically obtained from the dark web. But if the African-based telcos offered a call-block service, consumers would have a fighting chance against the con artists.

Technology is a double-edged sword

Africa is no stranger to technological advancements. We live in an age of mobile money payments, digital healthcare and emerging digital innovations that increase collaboration and connections.

Africa’s burgeoning telecoms industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar sector, changing and opening up infrastructure. But this also makes this continent a prime target for telecoms fraud. This is because criminal minds now leverage the self-same technology propelling this continent’s growth.

Gavin Stewart, Vice President of Sales at telecoms software technology company Oculeus, explains technological growth helps scammers bypass existing defence systems more quickly than usual. “Advances in technology allow fraudsters to access the required tools to commit abuses. Bad actors now employ artificial intelligence (AI) innovations to outwit the traditional countermeasures telcos rely on.”

With AI-led tech, how can telcos possibly keep up with these scammers?

Stewart offers insight: “As a society, the mechanics of daily life become more digitised, criminals also switch to the online world. Telecoms infrastructure provides a perfect access channel to the identities and riches in this digital world.”

Account Takeovers and Smishing/SMS Phishing are two other methods criminals use to acquire subscriber information and target potential victims.

Africa’s telecoms fraud threats

Although telecoms fraud manifests in many ways, a few have standard features in Africa. According to Stewart, “Africa has special conditions which leave it even more exposed to the growing telecoms scam.”

Below are three rising telecoms fraud issues on the continent today that businesses and consumers would be wise to familiarise themselves with:

International bypass fraud. Otherwise known as SIM Box Fraud, this happens when swindlers mask international calls as local calls to enjoy lower termination rates. “This is achieved by either pushing the traffic down illegitimate routings or impersonating a local caller ID, or both,” explains Stewart.
Exploiting Africa’s vast mobile money ecosystem. Based on the GSMA’s 2022 State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money, the continent has the highest number of registered users.
It’s understandable, given how many Africans were previously unbanked. As it is a viable market for telcos to extend coverage, scammers can exploit this to defraud users.
Stewart believes the mobile money system is easy to hack because it lacks the many security layers and controls in more formal banking sectors. “A mobile money fraudster needs only access to a mobile network to appropriate funds,” he says.
Africa’s overreliance on prepaid subscriptions. This model invites specific petty-fraud schemes that seek to empty a subscriber’s credit.
Stewart shares a typical instance where the fraudster provides premium services like sports updates or romantic tips without consent from the customer. The victim is usually oblivious until they later realise they have a low or even empty account balance.

How to fight off fraud attacks

We must admit that telecoms fraud can’t be entirely eradicated, especially because fraudsters will always find loopholes to exploit and evolve new tactics. However, we can stop them dead in their tracks by being one step ahead.

Telcos should invest in innovative technologies and lean into AI-led tools that mitigate risk. Although such commitments may require new investments, the gains can’t be overemphasised.

Stewart reveals that telcos’ biggest mistake is “failing to continually review and refresh their anti-fraud solutions.” Fraudsters constantly reinvent their strategies to defraud the victims and escape without leaving a trace. He stresses that subscribers must play their part by exercising caution at all times and protecting their personal information.

Kolawole Samuel Adebayo is a content strategist and technology writer specialising in the software-as-a-service space. Adebayo explores emerging technologies and investigates the digital trends that drive business today and in the future.

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