Deutsche Telekom Seeks to Counter Terrorists’ Phone-Card Use

Updated on
  • German carrier pushes for rules to track buyers’ identities
  • Hungary tightened access after cards linked to Paris, Brussels

Deutsche Telekom AG is pressing for Europe-wide rules to stop the misuse of prepaid mobile phone accounts by terrorists, including those who carried out attacks in Paris and Brussels.

The Bonn-based carrier will reach out to politicians, competitors and regulators to discuss possible measures including mandatory ID checks for people who buy prepaid cards and a limit on how many each person can buy, according to a spokesman, Andreas Middel.

Tightening the rules could make it harder for terrorists and criminals to use mobile phones in their activities, taking away a tool used to obscure their identity and elude wiretapping. Prepaid cards are loosely regulated, and some European countries don’t require buyers to present identification or register. The cards can be moved freely within the European Union.

“If there is to be new regulation to stop the misuse of prepaid cards then it should apply all over Europe,” Middel said by phone. “The problem is that right now, there are very different rules in Europe that in many cases leave room for misuse.”

Deutsche Telekom’s Hungarian unit, Magyar Telekom Telecommunications, alerted local authorities last year about the misuse of prepaid cards, Middel said. It later surfaced that about 200,000 cards, including from Magyar Telekom, were registered under one name, and a small number of those may have been used by terrorists, he said.

Deutsche Telekom, which already requires its German shops to check for IDs when selling prepaid cards, has created a task force to explore how to best combat the phenomenon, Middel said.

Hungary tightened its laws last year, citing the threat of terrorism after authorities disclosed that large quantities of SIM cards had been purchased in the eastern European nation under the name of a homeless person. They were then used for communication by perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels attacks in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Individuals will be limited to holding at most 10 pre-paid SIM cards while businesses will be allowed to have at most 50, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority in Budapest, which will publish rules this year, said in a Jan. 2 e-mail.

Phone companies will have to scrutinize the identity of SIM-card buyers and will only be allowed to sell them to foreigners who show up in person and present valid travel documents or a residency permit, according to the regulator.

Telefonica SA’s German unit, Telefonica Deutschland, is open to discussing European coordination on the issue, Cornelius Rahn, a spokesman for the company in Berlin, said by phone.

WirtschaftsWoche reported Deutsche Telekom’s plan earlier, saying the cards in Hungary were registered by ISIS backers under the name of a dead person.

— With assistance by Alexandre Boksenbaum-Granier, Michael Scaturro, and Zoltan Simon

(Updates with Hungarian laws in seventh paragraph.)
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