Cell number recycling by SA networks leaves customers fuming and inconvenienced
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.”
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.