Maxwell Saweh, a 36-year-old rural farmer from the southern district of Chikwawa, received a text message on his phone one November afternoon informing him that he had just won 10 bags of cement, 40 iron sheets, and 5 kilograms of nails in a promotion. He was very excited and told everyone in his village about his luck.
“I was so excited with the news of my alleged winning as it came just after starting my house construction project and thought it a perfect intervention to my struggle to find building materials for my house,” says the father of three.
The text message said for him to learn more about the promotion and how he could collect the prizes, he should call back the sender, which he duly did. Upon calling, Saweh was told his mobile number had been lucky in a promotion a well known company was conducting as part of its silver jubilee celebration. He was asked to send 15,000 Malawi Kwacha (20US$) through mobile money service allegedly to be used for transportation from the company’s headquarters to where Saweh was based.
Saweh sent the money the same day and the he received a call confirming receipt of the sum and he was told to wait for 48 hours for delivery of the said items.
Three later he called the number to inquire on the progress of the delivery of his prizes, but he was shocked to find the number out of reach.
“Having waited for the said delivery timeframe, I then called again to follow up but I was shocked to find the number out of reach. Since that day the number has remained unreachable.” He said.
Saweh says he reported the case to the nearby Chapananga police post for assistance. His case was reported, but up until now, the culprit has not been caught, as the police tell him they are still investigating the matter.
This has become a frequent occurrence in Malawi, where a mobile phone subscription has rapidly rose within the past 10 years. It is estimated that Malawi has 6 million mobile phone subscribers, half of whom are on mobile money service, and subscribers are able to send and receive money. With mobile money, various barriers to financial service access by rural people have been removed, as they are able to transact on their mobile phones, be it sending and receiving money or paying for goods and services.
This has brought another challenge. Criminals are using tricks to steal from unsuspecting citizens. According to Kenneth Chatsalira, a Malawi police detective officer based in Mwanza, a town on the border with Mozambique, his station has recorded over 20 cases of complaints of tricksters either extorting or attempting to extort money from people using the same trick they used to steal from Saweh.
“We have so far received numerous complaints by people in the district of having been tricked to send money on the pretext that they are redeeming prizes; however, the task to bring the culprits to book has been a challenge as once the tricksters receive the money, they simply throw away the SIM card and buy another one.” He says.
In Malawi, mobile SIM cards are easy to find and buy. With as little as 400 Malawi Kwacha (US $0.60), one can buy a SIM card from various selling points like supermarkets, post offices, and most commonly, roadside vendors. There is no registration of any sort. This is what has led into the increase of fraud. As of now, it is difficult to trace the owner of a mobile number that has been used in criminal activities.
However, it appears the fraudsters' time is up. The country’s telecommunications regulatory body, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) is implementing mandatory SIM card registration for all mobile phone users in Malawi. According to MACRA, this is in line with the Communications Act of 2016.
The said Act gives power to MACRA to register all SIM cards and generic numbers. In a statement signed by its Communications Manager, Clara Mwafulirwa, MACRA calls upon all subscribers to go and register with respective phone service providers by March 31, 2018, saying any number that is not registered by this date, will automatically be barred from its network until registration is done. New subscribers are advised to register upon acquisition of their numbers with the service provider, be it the phone company, distributor, agent or dealer of the electronic communications licensee, authorized to provide or sell generic numbers or SIM cards.
Subscribers are being asked to provide their particulars such as their full name, gender, date of birth, identity card number, and residential or registered physical address, as well as their functional SIM card numbers.
The statement says that, with the mandatory registration, issues of fraud using mobile phones like what Saweh experienced will be completely controlled, as culprits will easily be identified and subsequently be brought to book.
The exercise started on February 1, 2018, and it received an overwhelming response from the subscribers who thronged their respective service providers to register and beat the March 31, 2018, deadline.
Chaos in Registration
However, the exercise was poorly organized. Subscribers were asked to visit their respective service providers’ offices to register, this resulted in the overcrowding and chaos. For instance, the whole city of Blantyre, with an estimated 300,000 mobile phone subscribers, only had two centres where subscribers could register. This meant people standing in the queue for over five hours before they could be registered, while others just left, frustrated.
“The way these companies organized this exercise, I feel they could have done better. I think they could have opened satellite centres in the various townships so that we register there than having only two centres in the whole city has resulted in people overwhelming this place,” said Sadat Bonzo, who traveled 20 kilometres from Lirangwe to have his SIM card registered.
Bonzo said that, much as he knows the importance of such exercise, he blamed the authorities for not planning the exercise well, and he wondered why there were no registration centers in districts far away from the four cities, where subscribers from those areas could register from.
“If there are no centers in the rural area districts, how are they expecting the people in those areas to register?” he wondered.
Another subscriber, Rhoda Kamanga, who was not registered by the time Rural Reporter interviewed her, said that mobile phone operators could have come up with something where subscribers could register on their phone.
“The operators could have developed a USSD code, which subscribers could be dialing and providing their details right on their handsets. This could save time for many than traveling all the way to cities just to register,” she opined.
The news about chaos in the SIM registration process even attracted the attention of lawmakers in the Malawi parliament, who quizzed the Minister of Information, Nicholous Dausi, on what his ministry was doing regarding the complaints by phone users on the registration process. Dausi told parliament that his ministry was halting the process so as to allow mobile phone service providers to come up with ways to register all mobile phone users right in their geographical areas.
“We are immediately suspending the mandatory SIM card registration process. This is to allow service providers to devise ways on how to reach people especially in the rural areas and also do massive sensitization,” Dausi told the national assembly amid clapping from lawmakers.
Most Malawians welcomed the suspension, saying it will allow the authorities to address the concerns that were raised, which led to the suspension before resuming the exercise later on. Meanwhile, Saweh still hopes for the day when the culprit who tricked him will be caught and brought to justice as a result of the SIM registration exercise.