Connecting Africa is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 3099067.

m-Services

Mobile airtime theft rife in Africa, say experts

Article Image
Mobile malware and airtime theft are much more common in Africa than anyone thought, it turns out.

Nearly 1.7 million mobile subscribers are infected with malware in South Africa alone, according to full-year data from 2019 by mobile security expert Secure-D.

Once activated, mobile malware forms part of a botnet, a network of infected devices controlled remotely at scale by a 'bot-herder'.

Now you see it: Airtime fraud and malware is a far bigger problem than previously thought. (Source: Wayan Vota on Flickr CC2.0)
Now you see it: Airtime fraud and malware is a far bigger problem than previously thought. (Source: Wayan Vota on Flickr CC2.0)

It's increasingly common for smartphone malware to drive bogus traffic through banner ads. The fraudsters then claim pay-outs for the traffic.

This mobile advertising fraud market is worth more than $40 billion annually, says Secure-D's managing director Geoffrey Cleaves.

Among the most common apps doing this are ones called SHAREit, a transfer app for online videos, and a video editor called VivaVideo.

Fully 86% of mobile transactions processed in South Africa in 2019 were fraudulent, says Secure-D.

It found 24,000 malicious apps infecting more than two million mobile devices in the first eight months of 2020.

Johannesburg-based mobile telecoms company MTN Group has a security flaw allowing rogue application providers to secretly sign up users to content services and steal their airtime, says the South African tech website MyBroadband.

Click fraud malware also has been found pre-installed on smartphones made in Shenzhen by Africa's largest smartphone maker, Transsion Holdings. Transsion overtook Samsung in 2017 and leads Huawei.

The news is more worrying as Transsion's smartphones, including the Tecno, Itel, and Infinix brands, especially target users with more limited budgets.

Victims of airtime fraud will see their airtime and internet data deplete faster than usual, but won't necessarily know why.

South African mobile phone company Vodacom suspended one of its main partners, Mondia Media, for airtime theft earlier this week. Mondia Media nonetheless continues to work with Vodacom as a technology and platform supplier.


Hi Africa, California calling
Like all good trends, airtime fraud began in California.

Ordinarily, stolen mobile phones are cut off when attempting to place a telephone call.

But in the early 1990s, hackers figured out how to manipulate stolen mobiles to give a signal indicating they were roaming mobiles from overseas, entitled to unlimited telephone calls for $40 an hour.

The hackers would then sell this airtime on.

Zombie phones, in the current version of this fraud, not only use up their owners' data clicking on banners, but can unwittingly sign them up for ringtone and wallpaper services costing five to ten rand a day (23p-46p, or $0.30-£0.60).

Small amounts, but hitting many of Africa's poorest in the pocket. And netting billions of rand for the fraudsters.

— Pádraig Belton, contributing editor, special to Connecting Africa

Innovation hub

Story

Connecting Africa Podcast: S2 Ep. 4 – Agri-fintech, from kibbutz to Kenya

The Connecting Africa Podcast team speak to Israeli-Kenyan startup Avenews' co-founder and CEO, Shalom Ben-Or, about his fintech super-app that has been built specifically for Africa's agriculture industry.

Story

Hot startup of the month: Cloud-native developer Deimos

This month's hot startup is pan-African cloud technology and professional services company Deimos which is on a mission to be the leading cloud-native technology company in Africa.

More Innovation hub

Flash poll

All polls

Partner perspectives

All Partner Perspectives

Africa Tech Perspectives

Story

Women in Tech: Spotlight on inclusivity with Digital Council Africa's Juanita Clark

Digital Council Africa founder and CEO, Juanita Clark, talks to Connecting Africa as part of our Women's Month series about her career and what needs to be done to make the tech industry intentionally inclusive.

Story

Women in Tech: Spotlight on legal tech with Life.file's Sinal Govender

Life.file co-founder, Sinal Govender, talks to Connecting Africa as part of our Women's Month series about her career and how we can encourage more young girls to enter the legal tech field.

Story

Digital inclusion as a catalyst for economic empowerment: Mastercard's Imelda Ngunzu

Mastercard's Imelda Ngunzu talks to Connecting Africa about how digital payment solutions and mobile money are transforming the lives of small business owners, women and marginalized groups in East Africa.

More AfricaCom perspectives

Latest video

More videos

Industry announcements

More Industry announcements

Guest Perspectives

Story

Omdia View: July 2022

By Omdia Analysts

Kenya and Zambia move towards 5G with new spectrum allocations while Tunisie Telecom plans to shut down its 3G network - that and more in this month's Omdia View.

Story

Omdia View: June 2022

By Omdia Analysts

5G was the major news trend across Africa in June, as Orange became the first operator to launch 5G in Réunion and operators in Senegal accelerated their 5G plans despite spectrum delays.

More Guest Perspectives

Sponsored video

More videos

Like us on Facebook

Newsletter Sign Up


Sign Up