Illegal phone exchanges thriving on SIM boxes, VoIP

As technology develops, so does the scope to misuse it. The police observed it with Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) facility, which is increasingly used for criminal activities.

Flashers, devices that can change IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) numbers of handsets, are used to make stolen cell phones untraceable, and SIM boxes enable setting up of illegal telephone exchanges that rake in crores of rupees and cause massive losses to the government. In August this year, the Mumbai Police Crime Branch busted two illegal exchanges in the Shivaji Nagar and Cheetah Camp areas of Eastern Mumbai, arresting four accused and seizing a total of 14 SIM boxes.

Three months later, the police are still working on ascertaining the scope of the racket.

No international tariff

“Each SIM box can hold up to 32 SIM cards which route international calls. A person in Dubai can call a local number from Dubai, which will be routed to a number in India and then to the intended call recipient. This way, the caller avoids the international tariff, which causes loss of revenue to the government. Even if operators of SIM box rackets charge 60% of the tariff, they make crores in a month,” said a Crime Branch officer who is part of the probe. Investigations into the racket busted in Cheetah Camp have revealed that each SIM card routed thousands of calls every day from various countries in Asia.

“The accused running the Cheetah Camp racket would split the spoils with his counterpart in Dubai, and made lakhs every month. He made so much money that he was looking to invest it in a legitimate business and was going to apply for an Internet Service Provider’s licence,” the officer said.

Hawala money

Investigations conducted so far into the two illegal exchanges that were running in Mumbai have indicated that the accused got money from their Dubai counterparts via hawala channels.

The Dubai-based operators, who were allegedly the masterminds, would take a percentage of the profits, keep some aside for maintenance of equipment and send the rest to their Indian counterparts.

 Word of mouth

“The entire racket was operating on word of mouth. The Dubai-based operators had spread the word that they had the resources in case anyone wanted to make calls abroad at concessional rates. The preliminary estimate of the losses caused to the national exchequer is around ₹100 crore. The figure is likely to go up as the number of calls routed through each SIM card is calculated,” another officer said.

Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Sanjay Saxena, Mumbai, said the easy availability of technology was the biggest factor working in favour of such racketeers.

“The SIM boxes in both the rackets busted in Eastern Mumbai had been procured from China. SIM boxes can be easily smuggled in. Unless we have specific information, intercepting them is impossible. It is only when someone is caught using them that we take action,” Mr. Saxena said.

The Department of Telecommunications, which has the resources to monitor cellular traffic, now regularly looks out for heavy traffic from a single SIM card in order to identify such rackets. Information on such SIM cards is then provided to the law-enforcement agencies in the city concerned.

The other major concern, apart from loss of revenue, is the possible use of such rackets by terrorists.

In June this year, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, acting on information from the Military Intelligence unit in Jammu and Kashmir, busted three illegal telephone exchanges in Latur. Agents of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, are suspected to have received instructions from their handlers across the border via calls routed through these exchanges.

“We are still looking into the terror aspect of the case, as it involves large amount of analysis. No possibility is being ruled out,” said Additional Director General of Police Atulchandra Kulkarni, who heads the Maharashtra ATS.

An ATS officer added: “Even if we do bust such rackets and get evidence of calls being routed from hostile nations, identifying the callers is a challenge. Hundreds of SIM cards are used and discarded by terrorists on a daily basis, thanks to the availability of SIM cards without enough verification.”

Sources said that the SIM box technology that is seen today is a much advanced version of similar technology which was developed around 10 years ago.

“Earlier, such rackets could operate with only one SIM card. Soon, SIM boxes which could operate eight SIM cards at a time were developed. The number went up to 16, then 32 and now SIM boxes can hold and operate up to 64 SIM cards. Tracking calls made through SIM boxes is difficult as calls are routed through a random SIM card every time. The Central and State agencies have been busting such rackets for over 10 years now, right from the time racketeers would sit in a small shop and route international calls through a single SIM card every day. There have been operations where entire rows of such shops have been raided in various parts of India,” a senior officer in anti-terror enforcement told The Hindu.

 Call centres busted

The other kind of racket that is rapidly growing — two such rackets were busted in Mumbai’s Malad area earlier this month — is one in which people abroad are cheated by Indian nationals using VoIP calling facility. Since October last year, five ‘call centres’ have been busted by the Thane and Mumbai police. In both the rackets, the accused were calling up U.S. citizens posing as officers of the Internal Revenue Service and conning them into paying large amounts of money to “settle” their “tax irregularities.”

Investigating officials said the rackets were ridiculously easy to set up, as they just required basic infrastructure needed to set up a call centre. Staffers were recruited and trained in U.S. laws and accents, after which they started calling up hundreds of people on a daily basis.

After the Mumbai Crime Branch busted the Malad racket, several other such rackets in Mumbai and Thane reacted to the crackdown and have reportedly shut down. “Since VoIP calls cannot be tracked or intercepted, human intelligence was the only way the rackets could be busted. Unless Internet Service Providers start tracking the usage of their clients to look out for heavy traffic, there is not much that law-enforcement agencies can do,” a senior Mumbai Police Crime Branch officer said. Even if the caller succeeded in fooling 10 out of the 50 people he called every day, he would make hundreds of dollars, said officers.

The use of VoIP in crime has long been an issue. The Mumbai Crime Branch has, in the past, written to the DoT seeking checks on VoIP calls, after it was found that underworld elements based abroad were using the facility to make calls for extortion and to contact their foot soldiers in India.

How does it work?
  • A person based abroad, wishing to make a call to India, learns about SIM box rackets
  • He or she makes a call to a number supplied. The call is forwarded to one of the many SIM cards in a SIM pool. The SIM pool has up to 64 SIM cards, all of them Indian numbers.
  • The call is then routed through the Indian SIM card to the number of the intended recipient.
  • As the call is routed through a local number, it reflects a local call and not an international call, allowing a caller to avoid paying international tariff.
  • Operators of the SIM box racket charge up to 60%  of the official tariff, splitting the proceeds with their Indian counterparts.

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