Pacific Islands targeted by fraudsters hijacking phone numbers

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Telephone number misappropriation involves the hijacking of country codes and mobile numbers to commit telecom fraud. Hijackers often use false numbers to commit illegal activities – and telecom fraud is one of the biggest loss of revenue for operators.

Despite a number of efforts to counter the problem, number misappropriation is an ongoing issue worldwide, including for Pacific Island countries.

The issue has recently been amplified for Pacific Island administrations. Telecommunication operators in the Pacific Islands are often not aware of misappropriation of their country codes until they are told by an international operator or user. The initial response from many of the world’s mobile and fixed operators has been to block the country codes of Pacific Island operators.

The blocking of country codes has led to a number of negative consequences for island residents and operators. Some of these include: island residents travelling abroad being unable to call home; family and friends living outside the island unable to call that location; travelers not coming to the region for holidays or conferences because they could not roam; a reluctance by some operators to negotiate roaming agreements with island operators; and finally, negative impacts on the fragile island economies that rely on tourism for employment and income.

“I think the biggest issue is there’s been a lack of knowledge of the activities, particularly at the regulator level, and lack of knowledge of what do we actually do about it…” — Fred Christopher, Pacific Islands Telecommunications Association

ITU is the United Nations agency responsible for Country Code allocations and coordination of and has been working to combat the fraudulent use of phone numbers.

“Number misuse can have deep economic, social and trade implications. In collaboration with our neighboring Pacific Island countries, we’ve worked closely with ITU to raise awareness and build capacity to combat this issue,” says Mike Mrdak, Secretary, Department of Communications and the Arts (DoCA), Australia.

Since 2016, ITU launched a project with DoCA Australia to assist 15 Pacific Island countries address the The countries covered by the project include: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

“I think the biggest issue is there’s been a lack of knowledge of the activities, particularly at the regulator level, and lack of knowledge of what do we actually do about it and how can we go about trying to curtail this particular activity,” says Fred Christopher, Pacific Islands Telecommunications Association, Fiji.

The overall objective of the project is to strengthen the capacity to understand and combat misuse of national telephone numbering resources in the Pacific Island countries and develop for tackling the problem.

“For the Kiribati people, most of them don’t know that this kind of issue is existing… They didn’t report it, because they don’t know that that’s an issue,” explains Kaboterenga Romatoa, Communications Commission of Kiribati.

Raising awareness of the issue is the first step. Now, the region is working together to form a global network to combat this illegal activity.

“I think if we [create] a global network together, that would be a good reform [to address the issue],” believes Brad Partridge, Telecommunications Regulator, Vanuatu.

The project held a physical meeting earlier this year. The ITU/Pacific Islands Telecommunications Association (PITA) Capacity Development Workshop on Number Misappropriation and Telecom Fraud was held in Fiji to bring key players together and to develop guidelines that will benefit the entire region.

“This project is expected to result in real benefits for Island countries and improve telephone numbering management practices,”  explained Mike Mrdak, Secretary, DoCA, Australia. “Progress to date has seen increased sharing of information between the nations and the development of best practice guidelines, and these will enable us to counter misappropriation.”

The original version of this article first appeared in ITU News

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