A downside of being a post-paid contract cellphone subscriber is that if your handset or SIM gets into the hands of a criminal, you could be left with a bill running into hundreds of thousands.

Last year I investigated the case of Ashok Sewpersad of Durban, whose bill shot up to more than R900 000 after his spare handset was stolen from his luggage, and he didn’t realise it until days later.

Criminals had used it in an international “call forwarding” scam.

Last week I took up the case of Jarrod Stewart, who mislaid his phone over a weekend and didn’t report the loss to MTN until the Monday, by which time his bill had rocketed to about R40 000.

“I thought I’d left it in a friend’s car or mislaid it at a restaurant, or maybe at home somewhere,” he said.

In his case, it wasn’t call forwarding crime – the criminal had used the handset or SIM to make a series of virtually continuous international calls, each one lasting about 15 minutes.

Naturally, the bill came as a massive shock to Stewart.

“I’ve been told I am accountable for the bill in full,” he said, “but they are allowing me to pay it off at R10 000 a month.

“I queried my credit limit, which is apparently R7 000, but was told that this does not hold up, as once you reach R7 000, it takes 24 hours to block the SIM, and I now know what can happen to your bill in 24 hours.”

I took up the case with MTN’s general manager of business risk management, Lily Zondo, who said it was not uncommon for subscribers’ stolen phones to be used to make international telephone calls.

“So it’s important that stolen phones are reported to MTN immediately – to both their service provider, so the account can be suspended, as well as the police.”

Asked what systems the network had in place to alert affected subscribers of unusually high usage, she said MTN notified customers “where possible”.

“MTN encourages custom-ers to put pin codes on their handsets and their SIM cards, so that in the event that it is stolen, they will have two layers of protection.

“If the fraudster attempts to remove the SIM and insert it in another handset, it will not work.”

Asked whether the network would consider waiving some of Stewart’s R40 000 bill, Zondo said his case was being “looked at” by the network’s customer relations department.

I will report back on the outcome of that.

Here’s how to protect yourself from high bill exposure.

* Only have international roaming activated on your account when you are travelling beyond South Africa’s borders. At all other times, ensure that this function is not activated.

* Ensure that your handset and SIM are PIN protected. Don’t be complacent about where your phone is, especially at weekends when there is less cellular traffic scrutiny.

* As soon as you realise you can’t find it, report this to your network. Keep any spare handsets and SIMs locked away.


Did you know?

Stolen SIMs are mostly used by criminals for international calls, playing gambling games and airtime transfers.

Bills escalate without being immediately picked up because billing is not done in real time.

Call data is usually only downloaded from the cell areas to the networks every six hours or so, and then to the billing systems, and by that time, the damage has been done.

It takes only a couple of hours to run up an international bill of more than R20 000, if the SIM card is not locked for a couple of days.

Criminals break open intercom units at residential complexes in the dead of night, remove the SIM cards and use them in handsets to commit call forwarding fraud.

Criminals are not terribly interested in stolen handsets, as those usually only fetch them a few hundred rand. The primary target is always the SIM card.

These almost always end up in Hillbrow or Yeoville, where syndicates use them to sell airtime to people on the street who “phone home” – countries including Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Pakistan, India – at cheap rates.

Expensive smartphones are exported to other countries, and the “cheapies” go into cell repair shops for spare parts.

Source: A cellphone industry security expert who asked not to be named.