The Amazing Story Of How Fraudsters Are Enabled To Steal Your Airtime In South Africa

South African mobile networks enable fraudsters to steal your airtime, and there is very little you can do about it.

Criminal cellphone thief

In South Africa, there is something which the mobile operators don’t like to talk about: allowing Wireless Application Service Providers (WASPs) to take money from you without your permission.

Despite years of complaints from South Africans who lost money, fraudulent WASPs continue to abuse the facilities offered by network operators to steal airtime from consumers.

In the latest example, a WASP secretly subscribed mobile users to an R5-a-day adult service without their permission.

To get a better understanding of why South Africans are so angry with cellular operators about this issue, we have to step back a few years.

A history of WASPs stealing airtime

When you sign up for a mobile service with an operator, you trust the operator with your financial information and that they will protect your airtime and money.

While it is reasonable to expect that an operator will not allow companies to take your airtime without your permission, this expectation is misplaced.

For years, mobile operators allowed any third-party WASP to take money from mobile users without their permission.

A WASP could start billing any mobile number without the permission of the user or the mobile operator.

It is hardly a surprise then that rogue WASPs made enormous amounts of money from fraudulently billing SIM cards.

The brilliant plan to limit liability: WASPA

The mobile operators then sat with a problem: How do they remove their responsibility and liability for these fraudulent activities on their network?

The solution was simple – form an industry body which will provide regulation and take responsibility for the actions of the rogue WASPs.

In 2004, the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association (WASPA) was launched, with the support of Cell C, MTN, and Vodacom.

“As well as representing the interests of WASPA’s members, WASPA plays a key role in regulating the provision of mobile applications and services in South Africa,” it said.

It worked beautifully. When a subscriber complained that their airtime was stolen because of illegal billing from a WASP, their mobile operator referred them to WASPA.

The mobile operators continued to leave their subscribers’ accounts completely open to abuse, and when they were called out about it, they passed the responsibility to WASPA.

A WASP described the organization as useless and toothless. “Nobody is scared of WASPA, which is staffed by the very people that have an interest in maintaining the status quo,” it said.

Fortunes made from “airtime theft”

Many people may wonder why mobile operators allowed WASPs to abuse their subscribers and steal their airtime. The answer is, as you may have guessed, money.

For every WASP transaction, the mobile operator gets a percentage of the money. The more transactions, the more money.

If mobile operators wanted to decrease fraud and make it difficult for WASPs to sign up new users, they would lose millions in profit each year.

The system allowed fraudulent WASPs to abuse South African mobile users.

An industry player described the situation best when he said: “I abhor what’s been going on in this industry for far too long. Fortunes have been made by unscrupulous operators through what can only be called theft.”

New SIMs often nailed by rogue WASPs

When a person’s airtime started to disappear because of fraudulent WASP billing, one solution was to throw that SIM away. That SIM was then recycled, and someone else eventually got that number.

When they loaded airtime on their “clean” SIM, the airtime immediately disappeared, because the rogue WASP never stopped billing that SIM.

This raised the question: Why would mobile operators not cancel all WASP services on a SIM before recycling it?

Massive backlash from consumers forces changes

Consumers had had enough, and with the help of the media put pressure on the mobile operators to take action.

Mobile operators implemented double opt-in for WASP services, launched block-all-WASP options, and forced all WASPs to be registered with WASPA for them to offer services.

This helped to limit the fraudulent WASP billing, but there were still problems.

Problems remain, and there is a simple solution

Many consumers still complain that rogue WASPs fraudulently bill their numbers, which is clearly illustrated by the latest adult content subscription case.

To get your money back is an unpleasant and time-consuming process. Considering it is through no fault of the user that their airtime was stolen, it is not right.

Mobile operators are responsible for the safety of their subscribers’ accounts and should not hide behind WASPA when leaving accounts open to abuse.

The solution to this mess is simple: Block all WASP billing by default on all accounts, unless a subscriber asks for it to be opened to receive a WASP service.

There is no reason for mobile operators to continue to expose their subscribers to abuse by rogue WASPs.

The despicable practice of fraudulent billing by WASPs has gone on for long enough. It is time for mobile operators to stop it immediately.

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