Debt collectors blitzing your cellphone? Welcome to the recycled numbers nightmare.


“Cyril. Where is he hiding? Come on‚ put him on the line‚” he bellows.

And so begins a time-wasting conversation you have had on countless occasions.

Living with a recycled cellphone number that previously belonged to a person drowning in debt‚ with a string of jilted lovers or enemies‚ can be a nightmare.

And it’s not uncommon in South Africa.

Art-tainment Media called on readers this week to share their unpalatable and often infuriating experiences with recycled cellphone numbers. Many readers were the recipients of misdirected text messages. Others were hounded by debt collectors.

Wynand de Beer said a new number registered for his tablet device appeared to have been associated with a person hellbent on finding love.

“After the first week‚ I started receiving SMSes from Flirtnet saying people are liking my profile. I never subscribed as it’s a data SIM without voice. I had to complain on Hello Peter‚ to no avail. Flirtnet charges R2 per day. I’m still not sure if this will be added to my bill or not‚” said de Beer.

He was able to cancel his subscription after two weeks.

TimesLIVE reader Phomolo Mosala said that her number most likely once belonged to a popular escort service.

“I’m called by men asking if its Red Velvet escort agency and how much do I charge for my services‚” said Mosala.

“At first I thought [it] is someone I know [who] is pranking me but it happened again and again. It’s frustrating having to explain that I share a number with an escort agency.”

So‚ how do all these mishaps happen? Cellphone numbers are recycled. Network provider MTN explained.

“MTN is obliged in terms of the numbering regulations as issued by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) to ensure that it utilises the numbers allocated to it in an efficient manner. As a result of this legal obligation‚ MTN recycles numbers should a subscriber not show any activity on his number for a period of 90 days‚” said Graham De Vries‚ corporate services executive of MTN SA.

So‚ if a cellphone is inactive for three months‚ with no calls and SMSes being sent or received‚ no airtime loaded or data used‚ MTN is obliged to render that number as unused and give it to a new customer.

Vodacom gives customers more time before their numbers are recycled.

“We deactivate a prepaid SIM on our system once it becomes inactive on the network for 185 days. Postpaid numbers are deactivated when the contract has been cancelled‚” said Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy.

“In the case of postpaid SIM cards‚ once the number has been deleted on our systems‚ it can be allocated to a new user after 180 days‚ whereas prepaid cellphone numbers can be made available almost immediately upon deletion. Naturally this follows a period of inactivity of 185 days as highlighted above.”

One TimesLIVE reader was startled to discover that his number had belonged to a person who had since passed on.

“Somebody WhatsApped and told me I was going to get arrested for using [a recycled number] because its owner was dead‚” said Sibusiso Nkambule.

“I just chewed [on the SIM card] and flushed it right there‚” he said.

Apart from the inconvenience‚ there is no need to panic about getting a recycled number. 

While banks‚ clothing stores and debt collectors may still have the number registered to its previous owner‚ it is legally your number from the day you register it under the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (Rica).

“Once the number has been deleted on the network‚ the Rica details are also delinked‚” said Kennedy.

But it can still be very unsettling to get unexpected banking notifications. Ramathemela Moses Mushemuvenda experienced that first-hand.

“One day I heard a message alert. When I checked it says Capitec R4566.65 deposited into your account. Within 30 minutes R4000 was withdrawn from the account… After an hour‚ PicknPay swipe [of] R500… I was burning up until I checked it carefully and saw that the Capitec bank [account] was not [the one I was] using during that time‚” he said.

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