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Wangiri Call-Back Scam: What It Is and How to Protect Yourself

Wangiri Call-Back Scam: What It Is and How to Protect Yourself

Wangiri call-back scam - Afrocritik

The Wangiri call-back scam is a telephone scam where fraudsters mislead victims into calling premium rate numbers.

By Michael Akuchie

Africa’s mobile network coverage has increased year after year. In 2023, according to GSMA, a non-profit organisation concerned with the interests of mobile network operators globally, the number of unique mobile subscribers in Africa stood at 489 million. Beyond connecting Africans, GSMA also reported that the mobile connectivity industry had added a whopping $17 billion to the sub-Saharan African economy in the same year. While these facts indicate that mobile connectivity, a byproduct of technology, is advancing Africa’s growth, it has unfortunately also created room for fraudulent activities to thrive. 

Fraudsters are always looking for loopholes to exploit and mislead people. The telecom scene is a popular target, with telcos and subscribers hit by an ever-changing wave of sophisticated attacks. One such is the Wangiri call-back scam, a type of telecom fraud like spoofing, which involves concealing a communication from an unknown source as originating from a trusted source and SMS phishing, which is a kind of phishing attack whereby a scammer uses a false text message to lure victims into downloading malware or disclosing personal information like bank details. 

Like many unsuspecting mobile users, I have been a victim of the Wangiri call-back scam, and on multiple occasions. Around June 2022, I started receiving several calls from different international numbers. I knew they could not be local numbers as they all had foreign country codes, including from nations like Denmark (+45), Belgium (+32), Canada (+1), and Spain (+32). Whenever any of these numbers called me, it was always a one-ring that ended before I could answer. 

Filled with curiosity, I called the numbers back every time to know whose call I missed. Perhaps a friend or relative who had travelled overseas and wanted to surprise me. When the call went through, the person at the other end would remain silent even as I said hello multiple times before ending the call. If it had been a local call, I trusted my telecom operator to bill a modest amount. However, the telco company always charged me higher than I expected, even for international calls. Upon conducting extensive research on the Internet, I discovered that fraudsters had conned me using the Wangiri call-back scam. 

The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) defines the Wangiri call-back scam as a telephone scam where fraudsters mislead victims into calling premium rate numbers. The word “Wangiri” has Japanese roots and means “one ring and cut”. Unlike regular international numbers that have standard call rates, anyone who calls a premium rate number will be charged more than usual. 

When a caller is charged, the revenue from the call is shared between the premium rate number owner and the telco. Premium rate numbers are typically used for special services like voting on TV shows and tech support by companies. Diplomatic missions such as the US Embassy in London and the UK Embassy have also communicated with citizens through premium rate numbers. 

Wangiri call-back scam - Afrocritik
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A survey conducted by the Communications Fraud Control Association (CFCA), an international organisation focused on fraud risk management and prevention, found that the Wangiri scam was among the top five fraud methods used to trick mobile users. Wangiri and other types of telecom fraud have resulted in a loss worth billions of dollars. In the CFCA survey, the global telecom industry suffered a $23.8 billion loss. Although telcos receive a share of the bill that the Wangiri call-back scam victims incur, they risk losing the loyalty that customers have in them. 

Nobody wants to patronise a telco company that cannot guarantee their safety from scams. A telco that always has bad publicity regarding the Wangiri scam may not appeal to prospective customers. As mentioned in my account, consumers are also hit by this fraud attack. Whenever I called one of those international numbers, I was charged 30 naira per second which took a toll on my account balance. 

Unfortunately, not much can be done to curb the Wangiri scam. This is because criminals can easily buy premium rate numbers from the dark web, a part of the internet that cannot be accessed with regular browsers and illegal goods and services are bought and sold. Unable to stop the Wangiri fraud, telcos have issued public advisories containing preventative measures for customers. In July 2023, the Communications Authority of Kenya, the country’s communications regulatory body, called on citizens to be wary of Wangiri scams. MTN Nigeria, one of the country’s major telecom companies by subscriber number, also released a similar public notice. 

What people can do to avoid being victims is to only return calls to international numbers they know. Doing so ensures that the chances of calling a premium rate number are reduced by a wide margin. Whenever a suspicious international number calls, find out which country the call originated from. According to the CA and MTN Nigeria, many Wangiri calls have originated from countries codes such as Peru (+51), Cook Islands (+682) and Comoros (+269). Also, caller ID apps like Truecaller are handy for determining whether a call is coming from a genuine source or not. You can visit mobile app stores to check out the many Caller ID apps available for download. 

Also note that whenever a friend, business partner, or family member from overseas calls and does not get a response, there is a high chance that they will call back later or leave a text or voice message. Like many fraud tactics, the Wangiri scam relies on human curiosity to succeed. Humans are often eager to know who called or texted them when they were unavailable to answer. However, human curiosity must be followed by vigilance to avoid falling victim to this attack. 

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Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

Cover Photo: Forbes

 

 

 

 

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