News Room

Billions In Airtime Stolen From SA Mobile Users - Are You A Victim?

Author: Jason Snyman
Date: 2019-07-08
Organised crime syndicates are tricking South African mobile users out of their airtime each and every day. Are you a victim? Here's how it works, and what to look out for.

Disappearing airtime remains a serious problem all around the world. MyBroadband recently reported that billions in airtime has been stolen from South African mobile subscribers, and according to the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association (WASPA), we have organised crime syndicates to blame.

While the local WASP industry is regulated and closely-monitored, South Africans are still at risk from overseas-based criminals. According to WASPA;

“Fraudulent mobile-based billing is a global problem caused by third parties facilitating fraudulent transactions for the benefit of assumed organised crime syndicates.”

The association has formed a Fraud Prevention Task Team (consisting of representatives from technical, telecoms, legal, finance and other backgrounds), which is reviewing the situation and working on sustainable solutions. 

Of course, a lot of responsibility also rests with us, to be aware of what we’re doing, and so we need to understand exactly what WASPs are and how they work. While many WASPs remain important contributors to the South African mobile industry – bringing in revenue, providing employment, etc. – there are many that have been designed to dupe you out of your money. 

Let’s take a look.

Beware The Sting Of The WASP

A Wireless Application Service Provider (WASP) is a company that provides a number of services to the public. In SA, all of the big service providers such as MTN and Vodacom have partnered with many WASPs that specialise in various services or deliver some kind of mobile content.

The problem here is that all too often, we’ll find that a third-party WASP has conned people into subscribing to really expensive services. If you don’t catch it in time, you could be billed up to R7 a day for a service you don’t use, didn’t agree to join and probably don’t even know about.

Many of these services are complete scams, designed to swindle users into subscribing. Without knowing it, people could find themselves signed up for anything from music streaming services to adult content.

How Do They Trick You Out Of Your Airtime?

A couple of years ago, network providers began to roll out double opt-in systems for WASPs in an effort to reduce complaints of fraud. Prior to this, subscribers had no way of preventing WASPs from debiting from their cellular accounts or unsubscribing from unsolicited services.

Some of them still manage to slip through the cracks though.

One of the ways in which these WASPs trick you into subscribing is an opt-in prompt created to look like an age gate. An age gate, for those who don’t know, is commonly found on websites that contain age restricted content such as trailers for movies or video games or pornography.

The age gate takes the form of a prompt asking whether you’re over the age of 18 or not. Below is an example of a real age gate, commonly found online.

We’ve seen these everywhere and most of us are pretty familiar with them by now. Most of us don’t even bother reading them – we just click CONFIRM – I am over the age of 18.

This is exactly what the WASP fraudsters are hoping for. Below is a fake age gate – a confirmation of services designed to look just like a normal age gate. If you don’t read carefully, you’ll click away and soon find yourself subscribed to nonsense and running out of airtime at a horrific speed.

The procedure to end these subscriptions is different for each network, and sometimes it becomes a little bit tricky.

Luckily, every network should allow you to view and manage your subscriptions through a special USSD menu, and you have the option of manually unsubscribing from each unwanted service in turn, or all at once. We’ll go through each major network procedure below, as provided by WASPA. 

Vodacom

To unsubscribe from all WASP services send an SMS with “STOP ALL” to 31050. If you are subscribed to WASP services, you then should receive the SMS response:

Your Vodacom request to delete all WASP service has been logged.

You should then receive a confirmation message for each service you have been unsubscribed from:

You have been unsubscribed from ‘SERVICE’ with effect from ‘DATE’.

If you weren’t subscribed to any WASP service, you should receive an SMS indicating that your unsubscribe request was unsuccessful. 

You can also access your WASP subscriptions by dialling *135# 

MTN

MTN South Africa has implemented Secure-D’s fraud detection solution, which identifies fraudulent clicks from malware or other sources, and blocks them proactively in real-time.

According to MTN, this means that their users are protected against subscriptions to services without their express consent. 

As stated above, though, users can still be tricked into providing consent. When that happens, MTN customers can view and cancel services by dialling *155# to access the USSD. 

If issues with a subscription service persist, email MTN at customerservice@mtn.co.za. 

Cell C

All of Cell C’s WASP partners are based in South Africa, and are subject to South African law. 

“They all have anti-fraud systems installed as a prerequisite for the Cell C partnership and these are monitored,” Cell C said.

For Cell C subscribers, all existing content WASP billing, as well as all future billing, can be blocked by dialling *133*1# and accessing the USSD.

If issues with a subscription service persist, contact the Cell C call centre on 140. 

Telkom Mobile

Unfortunately, you have to contact the Telkom Mobile call centre to cancel any subscriptions. Call Telkom Mobile on 180 or email mobileservice@telkom.co.za. 

If you have reason to believe that you have been fraudulently signed up to a subscription service and wish to file a complaint, it is best to contact the Wireless Access Service Providers’ Association (WASPA). You can follow this link for directions on how best to direct your complaint.  

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