Two Months On, SIM Card Crackdown Fizzles

Citing threats to security and the potential for terrorism, the government pledged to ensure that every active mobile phone SIM card in the country was registered by the end of October last year.

Yet it took a reporter all of 30 minutes on Wednesday to buy $2 unregistered SIM cards from all three major providers. Two out of three—Smart and Metfone—were easily activated and used to make calls.

SIM cards that were purchased without any identification in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (The Cambodia Daily)

“Just put a dollar on the phone and you can call anyone,” said a man in a pink shirt selling secondhand mobile phones out of a glass cabinet north of Wat Phnom.

The man, who said he had about 20 to 30 customers a month, only had Cellcard SIMs available as he’d run out of the others, he said. The card brought up the message “SIM registration fail” when put in a phone.

A purveyor of used watches near the riverside said, without looking up from his cart, that he hustled both Metfone and Smart unregistered sims.

Two doors down, a man with a money exchange counter and a selection of used telephones and whiteboard markers cheerfully sold a reporter a Metfone SIM without any mention of needing an ID.

“No, you don’t need your name,” he said. “Just put the SIM in and you can make free calls on the network.”

He said he got the SIM cards straight from Metfone, replenishing his stock every few months.

The Metfone SIM card prompted the message “You active fail!” when put in a phone, but could still be used to make calls. A Smart SIM worked without any warnings or messages.

As far as their businesses and many others in Phnom Penh are concerned, October’s widely publicized attempt to crack down on unregistered SIM cards in Cambodia is a non-starter, much as a previous attempt late in 2015 and a decree that banned unregistered SIMs in 2012.

While telecommunications officials and National Police said in October that the crackdown was essential for security reasons, as criminals often used unregistered numbers to extort money or deliver ransom demands for kidnapped people, the inspections of mobile phone companies promised months ago have failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, eager to appear compliant, Cambodia’s major service providers have texted customers and posted notices on their websites encouraging users to register their SIM cards for free at company offices, all referencing the October 31 deadline.

Whether their concerns about the law go far enough to risk losing customers, however, is another question.

Smart representatives emailed a statement from CEO Thomas Hundt saying Smart continues to “ramp up initiatives and processes in support of the government’s enforcement of SIM registration such as proactively digitizing our dealer touch points and tighter compliance measures.”

They declined to comment on the unregistered and active number used by a reporter.

At Metfone, an employee at its customer care center, who identified himself only as 4167, said the company “hasn’t yet planned which day they’ll cut service to unregistered numbers.”

After all, he said, the initiative was expensive. “There are a lot of numbers that don’t have a name,” he said, putting the figure as high as 50 percent of the company’s subscribers.

Im Vutha, spokesman for the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia, which is meant to enforce the registration decree, expressed his disappointment with this newspaper’s previous coverage of the crackdown, which has noted the continued missed deadlines.

He said he had reviewed a new sub-decree from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications just yesterday that extended the crackdown’s purview to street dealers as well as service providers. He did not specify what this would entail.

Meanwhile, he promised a working group that would chastise companies on the issue of vendors selling unregistered SIM cards freely on the street.

“If we visit the companies and they still have a problem with us, then we will make a report and send it to the minister of posts and telecommunications so he can take measures according to the law,” he said.

“Please give us time to do this.”

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