Fraud, corruption and the $5 billion MTN fine

By Michael Currie

MTN, Africa’s largest mobile network is reeling after a the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) fined the company USD $5.2 billion for failing to disconnect approximately 5.1 million customers from unregistered phone cards.

The NCC calculated the fine by fining MTN USD $1,001 for each unregistered SIM phone card.

While MTN are seeking to reduce this fine (due November 16th) by negotiating with the NCC, the South African Parliament has reportedly summoned MTN to appear before it to explain the fine handed down by the NCC and also to ensure that MTN is compliant with South Africa’s laws.[1]

MTN’s shared were also provisionally suspended from trading on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, however, shares are trading freely again.

UPDATE (12 Nov. 2015): MTN’s recent chairman appointee, Phuthuma Nhleko, has indicated to media that the company would seek to reduce the fine was named executive chairman of MTN for up to six months after Sifiso Dabengwa stepped down as CEO with immediate effect on Monday.  “The planning is based on all possible outcomes and contingencies and our aim is to comply with all regulations in Nigeria,” said MTN spokesman Chris Maroleng, with experts expecting a reduction ranging from as little as 5% to as much as 75%.

While the fine imposed by MTN has received mixed reactions as many feel that the fine is harsh and disproportionate to the harm done, it does not appear the relationships between MTN and the NCC have broken down entirely as the NCC has granted MTN an extension on their licence to operate in Nigeria.

While it has been accepted that there are legitimate security reasons for ensuring that phone cards are registered, it has been suggested that the massive MTN fine was influenced by the kidnapping of a high ranking Nigerian politician, Olu Falae, a former finance minister and runner up in the 1999 presidential elections, on 21 September 2015[2].

The MTN fine saw their share price fall by up to 20% since the announcement of the fine highlighting that apart from the financial penalties highlighting, once again, the need to ensure that companies are fully compliant with the regulatory environment in which they operate.

Fraud and cybercrime

The need to ensure that all phone cards are registered is an increasingly important element to safeguarding individuals from various forms of illicit conduct.  Says John Oxenham, “Mobile phones are increasingly being used as the platform upon which to connect to the internet and on the South African continent the majority of internet access is through phones and not computers.  Unregistered SIM cards are too easily capable of being used for criminal activity, reducing the traceability of illicit telecommunications.”

This is an important consideration as cybercrime has become an increasingly pressing issue to address. A number of countries including such as Namibia are in the process of drafting new legislation specifically to deal with cybercrime. South Africa’s telecommunications has also recently set up a cybercrime hub which will promote collaboration between the public and private sector to detect, track and combat cybercrime techniques. South Africa is also on the brink of having the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) fully come into force. While POPI generally regulates the use, storage and dissemination of personal information, POPI imposes a higher duty of care when processing persons account numbers and a contravention of the provisions relating to the processing of account numbers is a criminal offence.

It was reported that South Africa is the third highest cybercrime hotspot in the world. Furthermore, an estimated 50% of credit card fraud occurs online[3].

Accordingly, any measure which needs to be put in place to guard against cybercrime attaches and make it easier for the relevant authorities to detect and prosecute those responsible for cyber attacks should be encouraged. Whether the MTN fine is proportional is a debate for another day, however, it will undoubtedly raise the awareness of mobile operators to ensure that they comply with all regulations particularly relating to the registration of phone cards, and that can only be of great assistance to the fight against cyber-crime. 





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