Seven years ago, our country introduced an anti-terrorist measure: anyone who bought a SIM card for a smartphone must have it registered in their name. This made anonymous calling a thing of the past and you always have to show an identity card in the store when purchasing (or register online). But why is it that criminals continue to call you with Belgian numbers?
A Wednesday afternoon. I receive a call from an unknown mobile number. Everything is correct: it starts with 0479, and the rest of the number also seems ‘normal’. The contact person is unknown to me, but I answer, because he is a Belgian: “Hello, I’m Mike from TurboInvesting”. A scammer who calls from abroad and tries to sell me some investment product. But behind the scenes he mainly wants to steal my money. Why is it that criminals still misuse Belgian numbers en masse, even though you have to register them by name?
We submit our question to BIPT, our country’s telecom watchdog: “In theory, all Belgian telephone numbers are identifiable,” says Nathalie Dumont. “Competent authorities can request this data from the operator, but criminals often use mules. The person in whose name the number is registered therefore has absolutely no idea what is going on.”
For example, mules are young people who are recruited and given money. In exchange, they place a prepaid card (or subscription) in their name. Or older ‘victims’ are sought through advertisements that tell you that you can quickly earn some extra money. This is of course not without danger, because all those calls and messages seem to come from you. And so the police can also come knocking on your door.
Not always spoofing
Spoofing is also a possibility. This involves ‘stolen’ a number from an existing person or company. Compare it a bit with someone who copies and misuses the license plate of your car. This can be done, for example, by placing malware on your smartphone or hacking a telephone exchange. Technically, spoofing is the least convenient method for criminals, because it does require some technical knowledge. Therefore, it is not always the most commonly used method. You see it more often in the United States, because telephone numbers are not always linked to an identity and theft of ‘numbers’ is therefore easier.
WhatsApp traffic is encrypted and therefore cannot be viewed by a telecom provider
Can’t operators block numbers as soon as they are misused? That turns out not to be that simple. Text messages can indeed be ‘detected’. Their content is visible to providers and they can filter them there if, for example, they spread a virus or links to phishing websites. That also happens, for example two years ago during a wave of text messages that flooded our country. They seemed to come from Bpost, but actually spread the ‘Flubot’ virus. Blocking millions of those messages stopped the wave.
Following the Flubot virus, the operators received money from the government to develop an ‘SMS firewall’. This can stop unwanted and harmful messages before they reach your device. Proximus started using the system on October 4 and has already blocked 3.2 million messages. And Telenet has also recently activated the ‘firewall’.
But that doesn’t solve everything, because WhatsApp is also abused. This is encrypted, making it impossible for operators to stop criminal messages on these types of chat apps: “Because operators have no insight into WhatsApp traffic, users can immediately use a newly activated number for WhatsApp,” says Nathalie Dumont of BIPT. “After all, an operator only sees data traffic, which is a difference with if a new number were to send similar messages en masse via SMS. In the latter case, an operator would pick this up and be able to block it.”
Report and block criminal numbers
Users can block numbers in WhatsApp and possibly report to Meta – WhatsApp’s parent company – that a number is being misused. You can also file a complaint with the police, although in practice they will mainly draw up a ‘report’ and not a report, unfortunately. In theory, police could trace the number back to the mule or criminals. But in practice, the best advice is still to be careful and certainly not to just believe what you receive in your inbox.
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