Telcos looting our airtime as NCA looks on?

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Everyone who uses a phone in Ghana should make it a normal practice to always check if they have been signed on to any unsolicited paid value-added services. In fact, we recommend that these checks are done daily. For each network there is a short code one can use to check. Dial the short code, Send and then follow the prompts:

  • MTN – *175# 
  • Vodafone – *463#
  • AirtelTigo – *100#

It didn’t have to be so, because the law says the only one that can initiate a sign on to any value-added service or unsolicited electronic communication is the customer himself. But it would appear that some staff of the telcos have made it a practice to sign unsuspecting customers on to paid value-added services secretly and use it to siphon money/airtime to meet their sales and revenue targets and or create a booty to share with their cohorts in their third party content provider organizations.

Value Depleting Schemes (VDS)

Sometimes, I wonder why they describe those well-crafted schemes to steal from us as value-added services (VAS). For most part, they add no value to anyone’s life. They are rather used by some telcos staff to devalue our lives by stealing out airtime and leaving us with nothing. By no stretch of imagination should that be described as value-added service. They are more of value-depleting schemes (VDS).

Let me state here that it is not our opinion that the telcos, as institutions, have deliberately set up systems to siphon our airtime secretly. It is rather some telco staff and their cohorts in the third-party content provider organizations, who have turned themselves into airtime looting brigade, deliberately stealing from us for two possible main reasons:

  1. To meet sales and revenue targets set for them by their employers
  2. To make more money for the content providers and get some kickbacks from them.

For one, that is broad daylight robbery, which is criminal. Secondly, it violates the National Communications Authority’s code of conduct for unsolicited electronic communication. The reason one cannot divorce the telcos, as institutions from these crimes is because Section 31 (1,2 and 3) of the Code of Conduct places all such violations squarely at their doorsteps. It used to be the duty of content providers to onboard customers on to value-added services, but now that role has been passed on to the telcos, so they have the duty to keep the gate and ensure their staff are not shortchanging customers, because there are regulatory consequences for that.

Now to the specific incidents.

VDS on my TurboNet?

This ia my actual TurboNet on which they activated a Weather Report on short code 544 without my consent

I am telling this first story because when it happened, I told the MTN officials who contacted me that, I will let it slide but if it happens again, I will tell the story in full. It has happened again on a bigger scale, so here goes:

Sometime early this year, I wrote a big article about how MTN started providing some paid for Weather Report service on short code 544 to my TurboNet SIM without my consent. The TurboNet SIM is inside the TurboNet. I have NEVER put the SIM in my phone. So, I could not, under any circumstances, have subscribed to any paid for SMS service on it. But I noticed I was being charged GHC1 per week for some Weather Report service.

To cut a long story short, I did my investigations and the MTN staff I spoke with pointed fingers at their content provider partner, Ignitia and to the NCA for the problem. They claimed NCA authorized the short code for that service directly to Ignitia so it is only NCA and Ignitia who can answer. But when I reached out to Ignitia, they told me emphatically that they have no authorization to onboard and bill customers, so MTN does all that and only gives them instructions to activate. So how the MTN staff could conveniently blame Ignitia and NCA is mind boggling.

Because they pointed an accusing finger at NCA, I also went to NCA for answers, and NCA contacted MTN. Eventually, MTN called me and apologized, refunded my money and assured me that they had corrected all the anomalies in their onboarding practices and refunded moneys to all affected customers and it will not happen again. I thought that was great.

But just days later I noticed that on my main line itself, there were two other paid for services – NEVARA (a games portal from India) and SELFIE STAR. MTN had no proper explanation for those ones, so I just deactivated without any refunds, thinking it will not happen again. But just this month I found that another sucker and stealing VAS simply called GAMES PORTAL hidden on my phone. It appears I am a target and they will not just let me be.

My 78-year-old mum’s yam phone

My mum’s Yam phone has a Game Portal called VUCLIP GAMES activated on it and they charge her GHC2 every day for no value to her

The reason I actually checked mine was because my 78-year-old sick mum, who is unable to even press keys on her yam phone, complained to me that the GHC20 airtime I bought for her was gone. I then bought another GHC20 and before we realized, it was down to GHC4. Then another GHC20 to make GHC24, and that one also got to GHC14 in days.

So, I decided to check if she has any hidden subscriptions, and truly there was an active service called VUCLIP GAMES on her phone taking a whopping GHC2 from her airtime every single day. How a sick woman who cannot even press keys on her phone went as far as activating a paid for games on her yam phone, only God knows.

And that was the first response I got from MTN, that my mother activated the service by herself. That is exactly what they tell you casually, when you call to complain – that you activated the service by yourself, as if they have video evidence to show you did it.

But we know for a fact that in the past when content providers had the authority to onboard people, they were doing it from their end so that they could make more money to meet their overheads. The truth is that, when these value-added services are sold to us, the telcos take between 60 to 70% of the booty and the content providers get the rest. So, the way for the content providers to make more money is to secretly sign on more people and steal their money. So technically, it as easy as drinking water for telcos and or CPs to sign us on from their end, which they always do – my TurboNet story being a case in point.

Widespread airtime looting

MTN and Vodafone are the leading culprits

But MTN is not alone in this daylight robbery. We put out the short codes for checking VAS subscriptions on all telcos and the results is baffling.

On MTN, the main services they use to steal from us are GAMES PORTAL, VUCLIP GAMES, HEALTH AND FITNESS, WEATHER REPORT, SELFIE STAR and others.

On Vodafone, we found PREMIUM TRIVIA, PERSONALITY TEST, MSCORER, MUSICAPP, GAMES24PRO, and BRAINWAVE GAME.

Not much was found on AirtelTigo and Glo, for obvious reasons. Not much is happening on those two networks. In fact, with Glo, we got a response that all VAS services have been suspended until further notice.

A lot of the people who gave us feedback in the form of phone screenshots on Facebook and WhatsApp, expressed shock at how all those services got activated on their phones. There are a number of possibilities, one of which has been explained earlier – that some telco staff connive with content providers to sign us on secretly just to meet their sales targets or make bad money and share.

Secondly, a customer may sign on to a specific service on a particular short code, but later on, the telcos and their CPs will create many other services on that same short code, and without the consent of the customer, they will just be sending those services to him or her and keep charging for it, even though the customer originally signed on to just one service on that short code.

So, for instance, you signed on to a PRAYER service on a short code. But as more people signed on to that same service, the telco and its CP partner realized the short code was popular so they placed about three more paid services on it and you is automatically provided all the additional three services and charged for it, even though you only signed on to PRAYER.

The other clandestine way they get people signed on without knowing is by deliberately hiding links to SMS-based paid services online. So, while you are on the internet and you think everything you are doing is web-based, you may click on a certain link and it automatically activates a paid SMS service on your behalf, without warning or seeking your express consent. Meanwhile, Section 6.1.3 of the NCA’s Code of Conduct says “The process of obtaining [subscriber’s] consent shall be clear and transparent to the subscriber.

If this is not deliberate stealing crafted and given a nice name like innovation, then I wonder what is. The truth is that when you report to NCA, the telco’s response will only be that you signed on to the service by yourself and you can always unsubscribe via the same short code by sending STOP. They will never accept that the signing on was done at their end.

In the case of my TurboNet, for instance, when they realize they could not pass the buck to Ignitia and NCA, their initial excuse became a cock a bull story that someone who had access to my TurboNet wifi, may have signed on to the service, and instead of their system picking the person’s phone number, it rather picked by TurboNet number. This is clearly a story for the Indians.

Let’s just assume their story is true – are they saying that if 10 devices get connected to my TurboNet and all 10 of them click on a hidden weblink to activate the same SMS service, they will charge the same TurboNet 10 times? Or their system will be smart enough to capture the actual phone numbers that clicked on the link?

Because they get off the hook that easily, they will NEVER stop signing on people secretly. After all, before you realize and cancel the subscription, they would have made some money from you, anyway. And if you do not have the clout to push for a refund, you just lost money to a service provider who promised you nothing but reliability and integrity, and yet committed daylight robbery on you.

So, let’s all help ourselves. Let’s make it a practice to regularly check for any hidden value depleting schemes and unsubscribe as and when we see them.

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