Mobile on, Net off

Rhea Lobo | Updated on March 20, 2011 Published on March 20, 2011


Today's SMS reads like this: Dear Thangaraj, catch d Cricket Excitement in Style wid stunning Globus summer collection. Shop 1,500 & win yourself ICC World Cup Final Ticket, Grab it NOW T&C.

The only problem with that is (other than the spelling and grammatical errors, but acceptable in today's lingo)… I am not Thangaraj. But I must admit, I have a rather intimate relationship with him without knowing him in person. Because, six months after I got my mobile connection, I am aware of many details of his finances, what he does in his spare time and where he likes to shop.

Trying not to let it bother me too much, each time a call comes that asks me if I'm Thangaraj, which is every second day if you do the math, I politely say I'm not. If the person on the other line doesn't get it the first time, raising my voice a notch higher does the trick the second time.

But what's come next is worse. I've been frequenting my bank to figure out why I am unable to register a payee to transfer funds online because each time I tried, a pop-up on my screen told me that my mobile number was not registered to get the Unique Registration Number (URN), and hence for Internet banking. I didn't quite understand it, because I've always received regular alerts on my phone when I make transactions from my savings bank account.

The bank employees were patiently trying to understand my problem, and after a week of going to the branch, calling the call centre and of course ‘trying again' online and re-registering my mobile number, I headed to the bank and refused to budge until I got an answer on why I was unable to register my phone for Internet banking, when it was registered for everything else.

From the branch office, a call was made to the call centre to find out what the problem was. Turns out, my mobile number was registered in someone else's account in the same bank! Eh?

Here's how that is possible: Thangaraj has an account with the same bank and has registered ‘my' number for his Internet banking needs. Then how was ‘my' number registered for mobile alerts linked to my savings bank account? Since these are two different procedures (registering the mobile number for mobile alerts with respect to your savings bank account takes place at the branch, while the call centre registers it for Internet banking), I was told it was allowed!

The helpful bank employee made an honest admission. He said, “Even I've had the same problem with one of my accounts, my mobile number was previously owned by somebody else, and I had to link my wife's mobile number to my bank account and not my own. The worst part is that the previous owner was a defaulter! So I would get calls, but what can I do? It's a common problem.”

So here's the bottom line — two different savings bank accounts, owned by two different people have one telephone number attached to them. And the current owner of the mobile number cannot register for Internet banking because it is already registered, no matter how outdated the entry was. When opening the savings bank account, the bank did not see a problem linking the same mobile number with my account. So how come they did not know, at the time, that two different account holders held the same mobile number?

Dr Sudhakar, Additional Deputy Commissioner of Cyber Crime Branch in Chennai, says banks have customer information and at the time of registration of an account, they should be able to identify if a mobile number is registered with a different account holder or not.

I now have two options: One, change my phone number, or two, write a grievance letter to the bank stating the problem, and the bank will then send a letter by post to the other account holder (Thangaraj) informing him of the situation. The bank employee told me that he was in no position to correct the change, until he gets confirmation from the other account holder that it is indeed not his mobile number (anymore) — even if I show him my phone bill as proof.

What makes matters worse is that the other account was dormant and no one knows if Thangaraj lives in the same address; or anything about him at all. So chances are, the letter may never reach him or Thangaraj will not make the effort to go to the bank and tell them that ‘my' number is not ‘his' number anymore.

Na. Vijayashankar, a cyberlaw expert, says that as per law, this is an extremely risky situation as far as crime and impersonation is concerned. If there is a crime committed linked to the other person's account, the first person the police will contact is me, because that's the number that is registered in his bank account. The bank should be worried that their records are not okay, and given the customer's information is correct, they must immediately act on it by closing or blocking the former account until the issue is resolved, adds Vijayashankar.

When contacted, the bank officials declined to comment on the issue.

As per regulations laid down by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), mobile operators can re-use old mobile numbers 90 days after the number has been surrendered. Sources from other leading banks say that when a customer opens an account with them, there is no need to provide a mobile bill to confirm that the number belongs to the account holder. The onus is on the customer to update his details every time he changes a mobile number.

Vijayashankar says, “There is currently no system to handle when and where mobile numbers change hands after re-issue, especially when linked to crucial services such as banking. The RBI needs to develop a system for mobile verification every three or six months, as part of Know Your Customer initiatives”.

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Published on March 20, 2011
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