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Cell number recycling by SA networks leaves customers fuming and inconvenienced

Cell number recycling by SA networks leaves customers fuming and inconvenienced
South Africans are facing significant inconvenience as mobile network operators recycle cellphone numbers without notifying their customers. (Photo: Freepik)

Unsuspecting customers are being caught out by cellular network operators who are reallocating phone numbers, which they deem to be inactive, but they aren’t informing customers about what they’re doing. 

They told me my number had been blocked, recycled and was now being used by someone else. They said it’s a long process to get my old number back — I needed a lot of stuff, including a police clearance.

An unsettling trend among mobile network operators quietly recycling cellphone numbers without notifying their customers is growing in South Africa, leading to significant inconvenience.

Vodacom recycles numbers after four months of inactivity, whereas Cell C, MTN and Telkom do so after three months. These operators argue that the practice is driven by the high demand for cellphone numbers from new customers.

The recycling process has unintended consequences for both the previous and new owners of the numbers. Unsolicited calls and messages intended for the former owner often flood the new user’s device, creating a frustrating experience. Here are some personal accounts from affected consumers:

Precious Mamotingoe Lesupi, MTN customer

“I got a new MTN number and it was still somehow active for the previous user as well. I kept receiving calls and text messages, even on his birthday. Every time I would call a customer care line for a certain insurance company, it kept asking if I was calling on behalf of the previous owner because apparently that number was still active there. In a nutshell, two people were actively using the same number at once, except he probably missed most of his.”

Tinotenda Mushipe, MTN customer

“I travelled back home for vacation in Zimbabwe and upon arrival at the OR Tambo Airport I changed to my South African SIM card. Then it was saying service was no longer available on that line. Luckily my aunt had WiFi, so I managed to survive for three days. When I got to Grahamstown I went to MTN to get help with the line. They told me my number had been blocked, recycled and was now being used by someone else. They said it’s a long process to get my old number back — I needed a lot of stuff, including a police clearance. The only option I had was to move on from that number I had been using for the past four years. Then I got a new number from MTN, but on the same day I activated it I started getting random calls from the UK, Lesotho, etc. My WhatsApp was full of numbers I couldn’t recognise, and so many groups as well. MTN told me it was probably a recycled line and there was nothing they could do about it. To this day, I still get random calls from the friends and family of the lady who previously owned this number, which is really annoying, and bank notifications linked to that number are not mine. It’s just frustrating.”

Everjoy Sibanda, former Cell C user 

“I had two numbers recycled by Cell C within five years, causing significant frustration. I wasn’t notified about this practice on any occasion. And the weird part is numbers were recycled while in use — one of them being a contract number taken out when I bought a phone at the network provider store.”

Customer frustration and upheaval

These experiences highlight the inconvenience and potential risks associated with number recycling. Users may receive personal calls or messages intended for someone else, including sensitive information such as bank notifications.

To address this issue, customers suggest that mobile network operators proactively inform users about potential number recycling and offer guidance on protecting personal information.

But network operators emphasise the scarcity of phone numbers and say number recycling is essential.

In response to questions, MTN said: “The use of numbers is addressed in the amended numbering plan regulations and incorporates regulations that promote the efficient use of these limited resources. Numbers are only recycled following extended periods of inactivity where no revenue-generating event has been performed.

“MTN does notify customers following these extended periods of inactivity that the number assigned to the customer is to be recycled and what actions can be taken by them to avoid this.

“MTN has structured its operations around a 115-day cycle as follows: at 90 consecutive calendar days of inactivity a subscriber’s number is deactivated and placed into quarantine; after a further 20 consecutive calendar days, an SMS is sent to the subscriber which reads: Y’ello. You have not used your MTN SIM Card for 110 days, please make a chargeable call within 5 days to keep your number active on the MTN Network. For more info, call 083135.”

‘No obligation’

In contrast, Cell C said it had no obligation to notify customers that their number would be recycled after it had been inactive for some time.

Cell C spokesperson Mandy Kojetin said: “It is not a requirement to notify the user or customer that the number is being recycled. Cell C has an internal churn policy to manage the recycling of numbers.

“The reason for the deactivation of a number is that there is no more usage or activity on the number on the mobile network, which is an indication that the number is no longer in use by the customer.

“The recycling of numbers is an industry practice and not unique to Cell C. It is important for the end users to ensure the safety of mobile numbers and email addresses that are used for access to various systems.

“The quarantine period that is implemented before the recycling process allows the end user the opportunity to request reactivation or allow for the updating of their information on their various external accounts.”

Kojetin added that Cell C allowed the reallocation of the MSISDN — a unique identifier assigned to each mobile device in the Global System for Mobile Communications network — back to the user if it is still available for allocation.

“Unfortunately, once the number has been recycled and allocated to a new user, this is no longer possible,” she said.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has recently proposed amendments to the End User and Subscriber Service Charter regulations that would require operators to notify their subscribers before disconnecting numbers because of inactivity.

Icasa says these regulations are aimed at promoting transparency and protecting consumers against unfair business practices in the provision of communication services. However, it seems not all mobile network operators adhere to these regulations. DM

This article was inspired by a personal experience when my cellphone number of nearly a decade was quietly recycled by Cell C without any prior notice. In early August, I found myself having to change a significant part of my digital life within a day as my old number was in use everywhere — from my bank to WhatsApp. When I contacted Cell C’s customer service, I was informed that nothing could be done as the number was already active with another user. However, last week, after contacting Cell C and connecting with others who have faced similar situations, it offered to reallocate my old number. Unfortunately, this came too late as I had already switched to another mobile network provider and was in the midst of the cumbersome process of transitioning and updating my contacts across various platforms.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Graeme J says:

    Recycling mobile (and landline) numbers is standard practice in every country in the world.

  • David Smith says:

    Recycling of the numbers is perfectly understandable, but the manner in which it is done is seriously problematic.

    Firstly, how to determine a number is inactive. Simply checking that “no revenue-generating event has been performed” is insufficient. The volume of uses for a cellphone number outside of “revenue generating events” is growing exponentially.
    I can imagine that the volume of users that do not need airtime at all is increasing (I am one of them). VOIP instead of Phone calls, Instant messaging instead of SMS, WiFi instead of Mobile Data (I use MiFi from a different network to cell provider when I am on the road). The most critical uses of a cell number these days is to RECEIVE information.

    The second problem is the manner in which the number is recycled.
    What is going to happen when a recycled number results in identity theft, emptied bank accounts, authentication issues with critical services? Service provider going to tell me “oops, sorry… its policy.”? Something needs to happen to protect personal information here.

    Not saying there are easy solutions, but the lack of understanding around the core problems makes me cringe.

  • thandoyende says:

    Same happened to me. CELL C deactivated my number without notice and I was told to “use the number I buy airtime for” by its agents.

    • LINDA TAYLOR says:

      To deactivate without notice is appalling. Mobile phone numbers form an essential element of our digital identity, used for two factor authentication, security notifications etc. , and it is increasingly difficult to operate in modern society without a unique phone number. This is not just inconvenient but potentially very damaging.

  • Hansie Louw says:

    These is one of the unreasonable ways that the operators work. It was hugely frustrating to me last year when Telkom stopped my contract four months short of the end of the contract without notifying me of this. My payment was totally up to date. They just cancelled the contract. Soon after that they cancelled my prepaid number – again without notification. All my bank account verifications were linked to these accounts. The prepaid number was allocated to somebody else. The contract number I had since 1995. The ownership of the number should rest legally with the user of the phone until this is sold back into the market by the user or his legal representative.

  • Johan Buys says:

    A call to an “old” number would route to the SIM linked to that number, not an old SIM?

  • vramaarnet vramaarnet says:

    The only reason Vodacom, MTN and Telkom treat their customers with the disdain they do is because there is no effective competition. Cell C could have provided competition but the fast asleep deployed cadres at the regulators office ensured the duopoly persisted. Seeing poor people having to buy bottled water because their municipal water is not drinkable is such a tragedy. A tragedy the poor have brought upon themselves due to their voting for thieves. The same applies to the shockingly poor service mobile phone customers are subjected to by the companies allowed to provide telephonic services. To see the MD of a mobile company receive awards is a complete kick in the teeth of the consumer. The only thing he provides to the customer is abuse. Service is a concept that has long been forgotten by Vodacom, MTN, Telkom and Cell C. Their management simply could not care less.

  • Nic Bosveld says:

    They could be held in contravention of the POPI Act if personal information is shared as a result.

  • I had a similar problem with my Aunt’s new number. I sent her money using Nedbank MobiMoney (Nedbank’s equivalent to E-wallet), and unfortunately this triggered a glitch in their system causing a dormant bank account linked to the number to be reactivated, hence my aunt could not access the money since the linked account was not hers.

    The bank said the bank account belonged to someone else who had previously used that number, and I hence they could not reverse the transaction due to some law. I had to fight with them for weeks before they could return my money.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    it maybe a recognised practice but our providers are so arrogant they see no need to inform their customers who actually pay their salaries!

  • Tony Norman says:

    Whilst I agree the networks need to recycle cell phone numbers 3 to 4 months is far too quick. I have had a cell number now for a very long time and i still keep getting phone calls meant for the previous owner. From debt collectors (who don’t believe i am not the person they think that they are calling) to friends of the former owner.
    Surely, they must have a “bucket” load of unused phone numbers.

  • Jennifer D says:

    The reason for having so many short use numbers and the need to recycle is the “special” the service providers offer on new sims. Users buy a new sim and get data and time and when that’s finished they simply buy another sim. They cause their own problems and then pass them on to the consumer.

  • It makes sense to recycle numbers but I feel 3/4 months is too short a period especially if there’s airtime on the account of that #. Vodacom recycled my number and I lost a R 1000 of airtime. Nothing can be done about it, they told me. Please can Government force these Telcom Companies to extend the assumed period of inactivity to at least a year.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    The attitudes of the cell phone operators are totally unacceptable and I also believe that it is illegal. It is clear that they don’t think that the contracts they enter into is binding on them. For instance, these two-year contracts are entered into with a specific monthly price. But apparently the operators then unilaterally change the price to suit them. It is high time that they be reported to the relevant ombudsman or the Competition Commission. The obligation to notify is not even relevant; if there is a binding contract with a customer, that contract should be honoured. There is no way that we can allow these cell phone operators to become a law unto themselves; we already have enough of these criminal enterprises that have to be addressed.

  • I had my cellphone stolen at my Retirement Centre. I thought I knew the culprit n she was sacked a few weeks later for various other reasons. This week, about a year later I received a call from the number of my stolen cellphone. I answered and asked the person where she bought her phone. She answered at Pep stored and said Why.
    I said because you have the number of my stolen phone and she immediately cut the call !! What do you think happened here??

  • Leoni Lubbinge says:

    Thanks for removing Cell C from my list of companies to support. With such wonderful customer support what could go wrong!

  • jason du toit says:

    um… maybe just add an extra digit to phone numbers? UK and many others have 11-digit numbers; several countries have 12-digit numbers. one extra digit: 10 times the pool of numbers.

  • Bousfield.colin says:

    ja, all well and good.

    however with social media been what it is and double security required in many cases i had a very unhappy experience where my cell number was deactivated and I could not get the double check info to log onto some sites. I could not get the admins to fix this with a new number and was forced to create new identities which has lost much of my historical information.

    Cell companies should be forced to make contact with the number owners if payments are been made irrespective of use or not.

  • I used a vodacom as my second pay as you go sim in se second slot of my phone. One sim for personal use and the other for work. Whatsapl was all i used the 2nd sim for but realised when my colleagues tried to call me the number went straight to voicemail. When i went to a vodacom store to enquire they said because i did not load airtime monthly it deactivated and and was assigned to someone else. WTF. No heads up for for me to remedy the situation. Vodacom so big they couldnt care less about the popi act. What if someone now has access to my private data. OTP from the bank etc. All they need is my banks username and im sure they can hack my account by using the forgot password functionality. I better get that number un ricad from my name fast. Do they even know what risk they are putting us at. Im pretty sure this is illegal. Only in communist Africa….

  • Sliver Fox says:

    Forget the reasons the network gives you as to why they “need” to recycle numbers. They’re simply after the money balance on the card, which is a liability in their books. Recycling after 90 days is a joke.

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