The issue of illegal mobile phones in South Africa

Illegal mobile phones in South Africa clog mobile networks and lead to loss of revenues from the government's VAT, so how can this issue be fixed to relieve legit mobile users and increase the state's revenue?

The problem of illegally imported phones is a major issue in South Africa. In 2013, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) was already working hard to crack down on illegal cordless phones using 3G connections (enhanced cordless telecommunications or DECT). Those phones, often bought in flea markets, clogged the mobile network by interfering with mobile towers and subscribers’ service. ICASA led a nationwide campaign to encourage owners of illegal phones to turn them in, warning that it had the authority to search properties and seize illegal devices. This solution revealed one major flow in the country’s fight against illegal mobile devices: ICASA did not have the technology to detect and block them, and seems to still be lacking this essential feature in 2021.

In 2010, following the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA law passed in 2009), cell phone users in South Africa were required to register their mobile device and SIM cards to the proper authorities. This solution still had flaws as many South Africans use more than one name, live at many different addresses, and/or can easily counterfeit verification papers. The issue of illegally porting phone numbers for one mobile carrier to another also makes it difficult to keep track of who really controls a phone number, a problem that is still unresolved today, even though SA’s major mobile carriers started to use network-locked phones again in 2019 after a 10-year hiatus. Mobile clickjacking (fraudulently subscribing to paid services on behalf of another mobile user) is still pretty big in SA, according to a 2020 study by the French firm Evina.

To operate control over illegal devices hogging mobile networks, the solution is to build a National Equipment Identity Register (NEIR) listing all legal devices by their International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI). All unrecognized devices are refused access to the network. In 2020, Bangladesh, a country heavily hit by counterfeited and smuggled mobile devices, announced the implementation of this technological solution. The authorities also opened a portal for all mobile users to check if their phones are legal or not.

This new solution raised a new issue: How can it recognize a bogus IMEI  from a real one? Since cell phones became a popular toy, cell phone theft became huge, and numerous software popped up on the web to allow any thief to change the IMEI number of a phone to hide its original ID and sell it back as a brand new phone. This issue was already making SA’s headlines 15 years ago, and back then the country’s mobile providers did not seem too keen on solving the problem.

Some companies address the need to reduce illegally imported mobile devices in South Africa, by providing a mix of digital scanning solutions implemented directly on mobile operators’ networks that detect all counterfeit, cloned, fake and undeclared IMEI numbers. Those technological solutions also improve network performance and quality of service by banning all devices unfit to connect to the network. While many mobile operators already use this technology for an inhouse management of their data distribution networks, it is less common to see governmental bodies implementing it to maximise their VAT revenues.

Tracking cell phones across mobile networks has become a hot topic since the outbreak of the coronavirus. In an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, the highly-advertised solution has been to track all mobile users, in order to identify anyone that has been in close contact with an infected person. In South Africa, this solution was rolled out in April 2020, with a promise from the Minister of Communications that this system would not be used to spy on its users. A mobile application, COVID Alert South Africa, was introduced to make this technology even more efficient and data-rich. The question thus remains: Will this approach pave the way to a full control of mobile devices in South Africa? Only time will tell.