Number’s up for false phone names

People will have to use their real names to register up to 10 mobile phone SIM cards starting in March, says Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah.

Yau said yesterday the new law, Real-name Registration Programme for SIM Cards, aims to prevent and detect scams using prepaid SIM cards as well as safeguard the integrity of telecom services and the security of communications networks.

The law will only apply to prepaid SIM cards sold in Hong Kong, not from other countries, Yau said.

Under the program, phone users will be required to provide their names, Hong Kong identity card numbers, dates of birth and their ID card copy to telecom companies when they buy a new phone card or extend the use of an old one.

Corporate users will need to provide the number and a copy of the business or branch registration certificate, as well as personal information of the responsible person for the registration.

Users under 16 will need the endorsement of an adult for them to register their own SIM cards. When a seven-week public consultation was launched in January, the government proposed that each user register no more than three prepaid SIM cards with each telecom operator.

But yesterday the government raised the cap to 10 cards with each telecom operator for each individual, while a company can get a maximum of 25 under each operator.

Yau said the regulation will be gazetted on Friday and tabled in the Legislative Council for negative vetting next Wednesday for a September 1 start.

Telecom companies will be given 180 days to prepare, after which real name registration will start in March, and new SIM service plans and prepaid SIM users can only activate their phone cards after registering their information.

By February 23, 2023, all phone cards should be registered under real names.

People who have joined mobile service plans do not need to register again, unless they change to another telecom operator or have a new phone number.

Telecom companies should check, verify and keep the information provided by users. If someone deliberately provides false information, the responsibility is not on the operators, Yau said.

He said most places in the world have real name SIM registration and Hong Kong now has 12 million prepaid SIM cards and nine million paid monthly SIM cards.

Law enforcement agencies can request the operators provide such records with a magistrate’s warrant or without a warrant in certain urgent or emergency situations.

“All these provisions are actually not new,” Yau said. “They are basically in line with other enforcement arrangements as described in other similar ordinances.

He said the government received feedback that numbered more than 100,000 during the consultation and that more than 70 percent backed real-name registration.

Authorities made some refinements based on the feedback, including raising the cap on the number of phone cards that can be registered.

“We recognized corporate users, companies, particularly in certain industries – for instance, food and beverage, logistics, etc – these companies may require a larger number of prepaid SIM cards for their staff,” he said.

Yau added that 25 cards is not the absolute cap as there are four major telecom operators in the city, with a few virtual mobile operators providing SIM cards.

“So we are talking about between four and eight operators in the market, which you can easily obtain services from. If you times that number with 25, we are talking 100 to 200, which should be sufficient based on our consultation with the trade,” Yau said.

Director-General of Communications Chaucer Leung Chung-yin said telecom operators can verify a buyer’s information at outlets or through electronic Know-Your-Customer solutions, or they can propose other methods to the government.

He also said the government’s iAM Smart mobile app can help operators verify the information.

As long as the operators have tried their best to verify the information, they will not be punished if there is a problem, he said.

Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, said many people still think the new cap of registrable SIM cards is not enough, while telecom operators may have to provide SIM cards with more data usage and longer expiry date.

“I believe mobile operators will think about whether to provide some prepaid cards with bigger data usage so people will not need to buy so many cards,” Fong said.

“Instead of the current 30GB or 50GB data, they may consider providing cards with 100GB or 200GB so people can use the card for a longer time.”

He also said mobile operators will need to spend money to set up an eKYC system for authentication, which some virtual banks have been using for people to open a bank account.

But he said that a loophole has been found in the system recently as scammers cheated a bank of more than HK$3 million last week by using other people’s information with their own faces to make forged IDs.

For their part, SIM card sellers on Apliu Street in Sham Shui Po believed the law would adversely hit their business.

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