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SIM cloning – the new cyber crime in town

Syed Samiul Basher Anik

Police say they have heard of cloning through missed calls, experts’ opinions divided

If someone is used to returning missed calls from unknown numbers, chances are high that they may fall victim to “SIM cloning” – the new cyber crime in town.

Sources said fraud gangs give missed calls to selected numbers. When the users return the call, they copy the information stored on the SIM cards including contacts.

In that way, the SIM card of the victim gets cloned and can be used simultaneously just like the actual card for making calls, sending text messages, and so on.

 

Even though police said cloning a subscriber identification module (SIM) card through exchanging missed calls was possible, ICT professionals have given contrasting opinions.

Police also said SIM cloning could be used effectively to hide the identity and commit any crime possible using mobile phones.

Although alien to the mobile phone users in Bangladesh, SIM cloning is a well-heard-of cyber crime in India. In 2012, some of the leading national newspapers in the country reportedly extensively on SIM cloning through missed calls on mobile phones.

In July 2013, based on a study, the International Telecommunication Union issued a statement which said risks from cyber crime such as SIM cloning were on the rise.

The ITU also said as smartphone usage continued to grow worldwide, mobile platforms would become ever more tempting targets for cybercriminals and threats came in the form of malicious apps and malware targeting mobile phones.

“And now, thanks to this research, we know there is the real risk of SIM cloning which raises risk levels significantly,” the statement read.

In recent times, a number of mobile phone users have complained about mysteriously fast depletion of credits – also known as balance – and other people getting unacceptable text messages and phone calls from their numbers that they themselves do not endorse.

ICT professionals have said not only the information on the SIM cards, the cloning gangs can also copy data such as pictures, videos and documents stored on the mobile phone.

They said because mobile banking has gained huge popularity in recent times, people who use it for transferring money, especially the agents, are the ones with the biggest risks.

On Monday, Yuvair Muhammad Nayeem, a student of Stamford University in the capital, suddenly found out that he had run out of credit on his mobile phone although he had not made any call for a long time.

Soon, he started getting phone calls from his friends and family members who complained that he had sent them vulgar text messages.

“I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I decided to call the customer care of my mobile operator Airtel. They asked me to keep my phone off for an hour. I did that and they solved the problem,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.

Asked whether he returned missed calls from unknown numbers, Yuvair said he sometimes did if there were multiple instances.

This reporter then contacted Shamit Mahbub Shahabuddin, head of PR and internal communication at Airtel Bangladesh Ltd. He claimed that he was yet to hear about any such problem but assured that he would try to know more about the matter from the technical departments of his company.

A few years ago, when the dual SIM phone sets were not available in the market in Bangladesh, some mobile phone selling shops brought in a technology with which they could install electronic modules inside phone sets and connect two different SIM cards with that.

That practice, however, faded away after the advent of dual SIM mobile phone sets in the market.

Mustafa Jabbar, former president of the Bangladesh Computer Samity, told the Dhaka Tribune: “We first learned about the crime two years ago. Now we are getting complaints from the users in Bangladesh.”

Jabbar said the authorities might find it difficult to combat the crime because of the huge number of unregistered SIM cards in the market.

“Currently, half of the total SIM cards are unregistered, among which, many are used for criminal activities. That has made it difficult for law enforcers to track criminals,” he said.

According to Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), at present, there are a total of 116.8 million active SIM cards in Bangladesh.

However, telecom expert Zakaria Swapan snuffed out possibilities that SIM cards could be cloned on returned missed calls. But he said physical cloning of SIM cards had been going on in the country for at least 15 years.

“They [who do the cloning] import blank SIM cards and copy the data on an active SIM card with data reader. The data is then written on the blank SIM card. However, it is not an easy task. Many instruments are needed for working on mobile phones, networking, etc.,” he said.

The law enforcement agencies did not appear to be too bothered by the new form of crime. They said the victims did not readily understand who to complain to and they generally got remedy from their mobile operators. As a result, they hardly ever complain to the law enforcement agencies.

“We have heard that SIM cards can be cloned if someone returned missed calls. We came to know about the crime during some of our investigations. But, we have not got any specific complaint as yet,” said Ashraful Islam, a superintendent at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of police.

Law enforcers said criminals mostly used the SIM cloning techniques for staying safe by implicating innocent users. They said the matter can reach at alarming stage if the mobile operators and the regulatory authorities delay further in taking actions.

Ashraful Islam said law enforcers had been working on tracking the techniques and technologies used for SIM cloning.

The Dhaka Tribune has found several websites on the internet that has tutorials on physical SIM cloning. However, all those techniques require the physical presence of the SIM card and nothing could be found that detailed the techniques of how a SIM card can be cloned if someone returned a missed call.

RAB Assistant Director Major Abdullah Al Momen told the Dhaka Tribune: “We have found that SIM cloning is possible in Bangladesh. But RAB is yet to receive any specific complaint in this regard. We have learned through the internet that such crimes are happening in other countries.”

He also said the elite force had all the necessary technologies to track and prevent such a crime.

“If any allegation lodged, we will use the technology and will make necessary steps,” he assured.

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