How operators can use AI to fight against telecoms fraud

Michael Akuchie
Telecoms fraud

Picture this: You find several missed calls from international numbers on your phone, and upon returning the calls, you hear nothing and after a series of “Hellos” to grab your attention for as long as possible, the call ends. Shortly after, the telco operator bills you way more than the charge for a regular international call.

This is a classic instance of the Wangiri scam

Wangiri is a Japanese word that, upon translation, means “one-and-cut.” Essentially, the fraudsters bank on human nature to return missed calls. Here’s how it works. Scammers acquire one or more premium rate numbers and then use computer-aided calls to reach high volumes of prospective victims. Sometimes, the caller on the other end hears nothing and sometimes, they could hear a pre-recorded voice also saying “Hello.” The longer one spends on a call to a premium rate number, the higher the phone bill. Here’s why. 

Premium rate numbers are different from what the average subscriber gets issued by their telco operator. The major distinction is that owners of premium rate lines get to keep a share of the bill that people incur when they call those lines. Telcos get a fraction of the revenue too. Services like tech support and weather forecasts are often accessible using premium rate lines. Because many genuine services use premium lines, it’s difficult to have them taken down by telcos, and that sad reality has motivated scammers to continue the bad work. 

So, when you return a Wangiri call, the scammer and telco split the exorbitant charge which you pay. Naturally, one would expect the Wangiri fraud to be treated as a major crime, but according to Gavin Stewart – Vice President of Sales at Oculeus – many telcos “may treat Wangiri fraud as a lesser priority since its primary impact can be the creation of nuisance & annoyance as opposed to direct monetary loss.” 

Interestingly, many countries have embarked on continuous sensitization efforts regarding the Wangiri fraud, but somehow the scam still works. This article, which dates back to 2013, records the experiences of Nigerians that have fallen victim to the fraudulent scheme. Today, the scam still reigns. 

Instance of Wangiri fraud

In Kenya, the Communications Authority has repeatedly warned citizens not to return calls from suspicious international numbers. Unfortunately, that hasn’t done much. Commenting on this phenomenon, Stewart notes that “The proportion of people who still do so [fall for the Wangiri fraud] is still surprisingly large, despite ongoing education. This is why sophisticated anti-fraud tools focus, in such a situation, on blocking the citizen’s ability to return the call – and ‘save them from themselves’.” 

Given the situation, it’s not misplaced to argue that telcos and the government should do more than just send text messages to subscribers and other forms of sensitization. Armed with that thinking, Technext contacted the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to know why the most significant effort to tackle Wangiri was “public education.”  

Mr Reuben Muoka – Director of Public Affairs for the NCC – revealed that the commission focuses more on sensitization because it doesn’t have the legal power to clamp down on the perpetrators of Wangiri fraud.

The NCC’s stance is similar to that of Nigerian commercial banks when it comes to financial fraud. Bank customers regularly complain of being debited for web-based services they never subscribed to. The increased adoption of digital banking services means more citizens use their debit cards to pay for goods. While this echoes the push for a cashless society, it broadens the horizon for internet scammers. 

Banks typically ask customers to protect their debit card details and never share them with anyone pretending to be a bank worker. Given the rise of these issues coupled with the increase of digital banking, one would expect financial institutions to employ a more wholesome approach to fraud, but that’s failed to happen. 

Read also; How the NCC is working to stop e-fraud

SMS phishing, another emerging threat 

In Nigeria, it’s common to receive text messages announcing that you have been selected to receive a government-sponsored empowerment fund. It’s also standard that you’ll be required to click a certain link embedded in the SMS to “claim” the opportunity.  

During the heat of COVID-19, many jobs were cut, and this paved the way for a high level of desperation among people. This provided scammers with the right atmosphere to concoct scams disguised as empowerment funds, employment grants, and so on. 

Anyone that clicked such links was liable to suffer from one of two possible outcomes. For instance, their details including their card details would be exposed. Alternatively, clicking the link would even cause the device to be infected with malware. 

SMS phishing
Credit:; Nairaland Forum

When asked, Muoka confirmed that the NCC was aware of SMS phishing and its potential implications. He said clicking such links was highly discouraged and that the NCC often sent messages to subscribers, warning them of the consequences. Like Wangiri, SMS phishing or Smishing, relies on human nature. Humans are often drawn to messages promising them a major reward for something they, until that moment, weren’t aware of. Imagine being told you won an iPhone 14 Pro Max in a contest you didn’t even enter or had heard of. 

Smishing is a popular type of electronic fraud, and according to a report, the average amount lost to e-fraud in Nigeria is $1,600 (N1.2 million). When compared to the global average of $600 (N459,000), Nigeria’s figure is a reason for concern. 

AI to the rescue 

Tackling Wangiri, Smishing, and other e-fraud types is tricky because of many reasons. Firstly, fraudsters are constantly changing their methods, thereby making it more difficult for telcos to track them. Also, telcos usually use fixed threat intelligence procedures that may notify them of the scam while it’s still happening but don’t enable them to shut off the fraudster. Stewart believes telcos’ reliance on outdated anti-fraud software and strategies could be traced to their “finite budget” and the truth about Wangiri fraud growing daily. 

As such, Stewart recommends that telcos leverage the latest cutting-edge technologies to reduce the instances of Wangiri. “AI technologies augment existing methods which have tended to rely on rather more static ‘rules’ for fraud detection. The AI helps telcos successfully detect fraudulent patterns where otherwise the fraudster might be successful in evading the static rules,” he says. 

Although telcos may not consider Wangiri a major problem because it doesn’t exactly affect their revenue stream, it negatively impacts customer satisfaction. Aside from prioritizing profit, telcos should also tap into opportunities to improve their relationship with subscribers. This is a golden chance. 

Similarly, Aidan Kenny – Fraud Analyst at Openmind Networks – believes that AI-driven tools can enable telcos to detect smishing attempts and bar them from reaching subscribers. “AI is used to identify suspicious messages based on the type of message that they are and by referring back to a ‘whitelist’ of safe URLs [website addresses] that messages can come from,” he explains. 

According to him, 90% of messages containing URLs could be whitelisted, thus enabling telcos to focus on the remaining 10% and fish out suspicious texts.  While this greatly increases the chances of reducing smishing attacks, Kenny clarifies that choosing to operate this way depends on the country’s communication regulator. 

The role you can play 

Wangiri, Smishing, and the other types of telecoms fraud prevail because the perpetrators are always exploring techniques to escape without prosecution. And while the telcos and government agencies are equally advocating for subscribers to be cautious, there are some things you can do to prevent the chances of a successful scam. 

  • Don’t be hasty to return a missed call from an international number. 
  • Be careful about text messages claiming that you won a prize or that you got selected for a strange empowerment fund. 
  • Ensure that you trust the sender before proceeding to click. 
  • Remember that no legitimate organization will ask you for personal information via SMS. 
  • Smishing can also occur through instant messaging applications like Facebook and WhatsApp, so always be alert. 

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