Last year, South Africans had to get their cellphones registered  Rica-ed  or risk being cut off. Photo: Sarah Makoe

It was meant to be a tool to help law enforcement catch criminals, but for many in the industry it is a standing joke.

Last year, South Africans had to get their cellphones registered – Rica-ed – or risk being cut off.

But 10 months later, it is easy to get a Rica-ed SIM card for a cellphone, The Star discovered last week. SIM cards were bought on the streets of Joburg without an ID or proof of residence.

“It is so common that the standard response when we get a cellphone to trace is, ‘I am sure this is not even Rica-ed,” said Riana Smalberger, head of the digital forensic lab at the investigative company Specialised Services Group.

“You trace a phone and all you get is a dead end.” Sometimes suspects were caught through correctly Rica-ed phones, she conceded.

In July last year, all cellphones had to be Rica-ed. The reason for the legislation was so that it would be easier to track criminals, as in theory their cellphones would be registered with an ID number and an address – a starting point for an investigation.

Last week, The Star went to three shops selling cellphones. The first was on Sauer Street.

“Do you want a Rica-ed SIM?” the man behind the counter asked, saying the SIM was already registered. He didn’t ask for an ID. An MTN starter pack was handed across – priced at R20.

The next stop was around the corner in Bree Street. This time a Rica-ed MTN SIM cost R5. Again, no ID was required.

A third store in Yeoville, identified by the police as selling already Rica-ed SIM cards, asked for proof of ID. The starter packs were found to have been opened already, and the SIM cards were loose, suggesting they had been tampered with. When placed in a cellphone, a SIM received calls. Later, attempts to load the SIM with airtime through online banking were unsuccessful.

Private investigators and police suspect that SIM cards are being registered with the help of insiders at the various cellphone providers.

“There is a lot of fraud within companies, and syndicates are involved,” said Smalberger.

It is also possible that the SIMs are being stolen. In April, police confiscated 50 boxes of SIM cards during a raid in Hillbrow.

A policeman, who didn’t want to be named, said police often did not bother to use Rica records because they were so unreliable.

“If we had Rica or if we didn’t, would it change anything? People will always find a way around Rica,” he said.

Cellphone operators said it was not just up to them to make sure that SIM cards were Rica-ed correctly.

“Adherence to Rica requires the full support and co-operation not only of the network operators, but also of the law enforcement agencies, the distributors of starter packs and of customers themselves,” said MTN. - The Star