Mobile tax evaders stealing passengers’ data

Published: June 9, 2019
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A man uses a smartphone. PHOTO: REUTERS

A man uses a smartphone. PHOTO: REUTERS

LAHORE: The international travel information and passport numbers of thousands of passengers have been stolen to illegally registered mobile phones. The aim of the criminals involved in the activity is to evade the heavy taxes imposed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government on such devices.

An official of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), requesting anonymity, has disclosed that 20,000 complaints have been received and most of them concern the illegal registration of mobile phones through Device Identification Registration and Blocking System (DIRBS). He shares that the authority has already forwarded hundreds of such cases to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and several arrests have been made.

He highlights that many international travellers have registered their complaints with the authority, stating that people have illegally registered mobile devices against their passport number and travel data. As a result, these passengers have been denied their legitimate right to register a duty and tax-free mobile device through DIRBS.

The authority has reported several such cases to the FIA, but the frequency of the complaints is increasing with each passing day, he adds.

Replying to a question, the official states that responding to such a large number of complaints is a mammoth task as the authority has limited human resource. Mostly, management trainees have been tasked to deal with these complaints and the DIRBS. Moreover, a similar pattern is occurring at airports as neither customs nor other airport agencies have separate human resource for the registration of mobile devices.

He bemoans that in a desperate move to increase tax revenue, the government had imposed duty and taxes on mobile devices in a haphazard manner. He underlines that the telecom regulator and other government agencies are not prepared for this development.

On several occasions in the past, the authority raised questions about the liberal import policy of cheap mobile phones from China during previous regimes, but nobody pay heed to the issue. In previous governments, devices with no International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers were imported in huge quantities, he said.

However, later, due to the increasing number of terrorism cases, law enforcement agencies recognised these non-IMEI mobile devices as the biggest threat. In many terrorism incidents, mobile devices with no IMEI number were detected. Due to these unfortunate incidents and under the pressure of security agencies, the government had to tighten its mobile devices import policy. Meanwhile, in 2014, the telecom regulator also directed all mobile telecom operators to link mobile phone SIM activation with biometric verification through the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) database. “However, this system also had several cons,” he maintained.

Besides the leak of international travellers’ data, mobile shops are allegedly IMEI cloning for the illegal registration of mobile phone through DIRBS. In almost all big cities across Pakistan and on social media platforms, mobile phone shops and mechanics have posted advertisements of registration of mobile phones through the DIRBS for Rs1,000 to Rs2,000. They either use stolen international travel data or clone the IMEI number of an unregistered device with a registered mobile phone by using different software and hardware techniques.

Last week, a PTA Compliance and Enforcement member also acknowledged before the Senate’s Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication that a massive international data leak has been reported. He highlighted that the authority has reported some 750 cases to the FIA. In various cases, it was disclosed that mobile phones were registered in the name of young children to avoid duty and taxes.

The committee remarked that mobile phone registration was introduced to curb mobile phone smuggling, but it had created a huge mess for public. The committee directed the authority to revamp the system by incorporating the protection of international travellers’ data.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2019.

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