Serious claims of an illegal international calls syndicate that could have exposed subscribers to fraud and breached national security have emerged in an ongoing dispute between Safaricom #ticker:SCOM, the regulator and two small telecommunication firms.
Numerous correspondence between the entities reveals a long-running dispute, with allegations of illegal international calls whose source cannot be determined being at the heart of the dispute.
The regulator on August 1 fined Safaricom Sh449 million after it found it culpable of blocking calls from the smaller telcos, Elige Communications Ltd and Geonet Communications.
Elige and Geonet are licensed to provide voice over internet services.
Safaricom in a three-page strongly-worded letter questioned the failure by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) to investigate the two firms over their acts of fraudulently terminating international calls into Safaricom’s network disguised as local calls.
“Kenyans have also in the past been warned about mobile fraud perpetrated through international calls that exhaust their airtime and manipulation by these companies compounds the risk,” Safaricom told the CA in a letter dated August 3.
Safaricom is referring to an international scam in which mobile phone users are fleeced of their money by fraudsters, causing jitters among local service providers.
In the scam, victims receive very brief or missed calls from unknown international numbers with strange foreign prefixes. The scheme is designed to lure phone users into returning the “urgent” international calls, upon which they are unknowingly redirected to premium numbers that drain their airtime.
The longer the caller stays on the line, the more money the swindlers make.
The scam, dubbed “wangiri” because the phone rings only once, has been reported elsewhere across the world, leading telecom firms in Europe and the United States to raise the alarm.
Safaricom questions the failure by the CA not to interrogate allegations of the two firms terminating international calls by strange numbers locally despite being licensed to operate only local traffic, terming those calls fraudulent. The two firms have denied the allegations.
Safaricom further notes that both Geonet and Elige exposed its network to calls from unregistered, unidentifiable and untraceable callers ‘raising significant security concerns to the country.’ The CA in a letter titled ‘failure to heed the authority’s directives’ accuses Safaricom of failure to respond to the complaints by Elige, the last one dated July 13, 2018.
The regulator further notes that previous complaints have not been adequately addressed.
In its complaint filed with Safaricom, Elige accused the mobile network operator of deliberately blocking calls from its network, breaching the connection agreement. It accused Safaricom of failing to provide any evidence of it terminating any international calls.
The firm sought orders compelling Safaricom to allow uninterrupted interconnection between the two platforms.
The CA had on July 16 informed Safaricom of the complaint and gave it seven days to respond. But Safaricom protested on July 23, through its lawyer, noting that regulations under the Kenya Information and Communications Act provide for 21 days. This saw the CA clarify that the initial direction was an error. “In the circumstances, we write to confirm that you may file your client’s response to the complaint within 21 days from July 16, 2018 when notification of the complaint was received,” the CA wrote back.
The regulator on July 26 informed Elige that Safaricom had been served with the complaint and given 21 days to respond.
Safaricom is now questioning the urgency of the prosecution by the CA, accusing the regulator of failing to follow the laid down dispute resolution mechanisms.
The firm further says ‘failure to heed the authority’s directives’ does not constitute an act that contravenes a licence condition. The letters and correspondence also expose underlying issues of forced marriage between Safaricom and the small telcos being brokered by the CA. The mobile operator notes that it provided interconnection to the two firms ‘pursuant to the direction by the authority after it issued licences to the two firms to operate as Applications Service Providers. Safaricom claims to have lost huge revenue due to the two firms passing international calls as local calls. The documents indicate that Elige entered into an agreement with Safaricom in September 2017, while Geonet signed the contract in 2016.
Safaricom on December 16, 2016 pleaded with the CA regarding the issues of terminating international calls asking to be allowed to terminate the interconnection agreement, but the regulator rejected this on grounds that it was premature for the authority to grant such requests.
But the two firms raised constant complaints with the CA.
Safaricom appealed to the Communications and Media Tribunal on August 20 alleging that it was not given time to be heard among other grounds.
The telco also noted that the CA gave a verdict before the 21 days it was granted to respond had lapsed. The hearing this week was postponed pending objections raised by CA regarding the jurisdiction of the tribunal.
The CA told the tribunal that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case since its chairperson, W Oketch, lacked requisite qualifications to be appointed to the position, a claim opposed by Safaricom on grounds that it had not been raised properly.