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Data Protection Concerns Of Sim Card Recycling In Nigeria

Data Protection Concerns Of Sim Card Recycling In Nigeria

By Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi, SAN.

Telecommunication providers have resorted to recycling inactive SIM cards for new users due to the growing number of telecommunication users around the world. The general security and data security of telecommunication users have been jeopardized by this action.


As Nigerians, we have at one point or another, had the experience of a strange number calling and asking to speak to an alleged real owner of our mobile phone number.  We often dismiss such calls as “wrong number”. A similar experience is seeing that your name on the True Caller mobile application is saved as something other than your real name, or the recent menace of receiving calls or messages from a loan service company, labeling you as the guarantor to an absconded loan debtor.

These are some of the consequences of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card recycling. This article explores what SIM card recycling is, why telecommunication companies recycle SIM cards, as well as the consequences and risks associated with this act.

What is SIM Card Recycling?

This is a process where a dormant SIM card is deactivated and recycled by a telecommunication company and made available to the public. This process usually occurs after a SIM card has been dormant for a consecutive period of 3 months or more, depending on the policy of the telecommunication company on this subject matter. The Nigerian Communication Commission, the institutional framework in charge of telecommunication in Nigeria, has through their official Twitter page, informed Nigerians of the possibility of their SIM cards being deactivated after a period of inactivity, and further instructed that service providers should be contacted for more information.

Why Do Telecommunication Companies Recycle SIM Cards?

  1. Cost of Maintaining a SIM Card: Generally, in Nigeria, SIM cards which form part of the numbering plan are owned by the federal government, and cannot be transferred in part or in whole.[1] The Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) in exercising its powers under Section 70 of the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) Act, has made provisions for ‘Development of a new numbering plan for Nigeria.’ Therefore, Telcos are obligated to pay a sum that is the ‘numbering plan fees’ to maintain their allocated numbers. Such fees are stipulated by the NCC at regular intervals, and will be subject to review as the Commission may deem appropriate.[2]

It is deemed to be a waste of funds to pay for a SIM card that is not active and generating income. Hence, they are deactivated after a certain period of dormancy and recycled back for another user.

  1. To Prevent Number Exhaustion: Our phone numbers are a combination of 10 digits which can produce up to 9 000, 000, 000 different combination of numbers. However, these numbers are regulated and provided by the NCC, to licensed telecom operators in line with the National Numbering Plan. Currently, Nigeria has about 207 million SIM cards owners.[3] However, the NCC has provided 94 million new telephone numbers for the use of telecommunication operators in Nigeria.[4] To prevent the exhaustion of these numbers and to reduce the cost of generating and maintaining them, inactive sim cards are recycled.
  2. To Reduce the Dormant Subscribers: Telecommunication companies are business organizations that are profit-oriented. SIM card deactivation and recycling is another way to encourage subscribers to keep their SIM cards active, by constant loading of recharge cards and buying data plans, so as to generate profits and keep the company in business.


  1. Harassment: Many a time people have been labeled thieves, 419, scammers, yahoo – yahoo , and other derogatory names by the callers of the previous Sim card owner because they are using a recycled SIM card. This is the most common risk associated with SIM recycling. These harassments can go from unnecessary phone calls, to text messages which might contain threats, and worst-case scenario, lead to physical harassment or even arrest and death. For example, the popular case of Anthony Okolie, the man who was labeled a criminal and arrested for using a phone line previously owned by Hanan, daughter of President Muhammadu Buhari. He was detained by the Department of State Service (DSS) for about 15 weeks.[5] Also, it has been reported that the Bulgarian number ‘0888 888 888’, has been deactivated permanently after Mobitel, the telecommunication company, noticed a trend of all its owners between 2001 to 2005, dying from a cause related to using the number.[6] These are just a few popular reported cases.
  1. Breach of Privacy: Another risk associated with SIM card recycling, is the high chance of private information saved with your phone number being made public. For example, National Identity Number (NIN), Bank Verification Number (BVN). Nowadays, phone numbers are set to receive a one-time password (OTP) code from our social media accounts, emails, mobile banking app, and some websites grant users access to these platforms. These codes are sent to the number as long as it is still attached to such account, immaterial of the fact that they have been recycled to another user. Thereby, making a third party have access to whatever information that is saved with that number. This can be the reason why most fraudsters will prefer to buy an already registered SIM card, as it is likely to be registered with the details of someone else.[7]
  2. Identity Theft: Some persons who use recycled SIM cards, have assumed the identity of the previous SIM card owner for fraudulent purposes. They pose as the previous owner to defraud persons of money and other valuable things. This happens mostly to persons who travel out of the country.
  3. Possibility Of Disrupting The National Database: The federal government in 2021, requested that all registered SIM cards be linked to a National Identity Number (NIN).[8] The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, in the recently launched National Identity Management Commission’s (NIMC) mobile application, has said that seven SIM cards can be linked to one National Identity Number (NIN).[9] However, nothing has been said concerning one number being linked to different NINs. With SIM card recycling in place, there is a high probability that this could happen and, in the end, disrupt the national database.


  1. The NCC in collaboration with telecommunication companies, should provide regulations and procedures to be followed for SIM card recycling, and the possibility of clearing all personal data of previous owners stored on the SIM card, before reselling.
  2. Telecommunication companies should enlighten their users and subscribers on SIM card deactivation, maintenance, and reactivation. Especially for those who are traveling out of the country with intentions to return after a certain period.
  3. Users are encouraged to keep receipts and all necessary documents attached when purchasing a new SIM card, as this is the greatest evidence of ownership and a good defense just in case an issue arises, due to the usage of the SIM card.


From the foregoing, the possibility of SIM card recycling being stopped, is highly unlikely. To prevent a SIM card from being recycled, always keep the SIM card active, load airtime and make calls on it. Also, it is not enough to burn, break, bury a SIM card when disposing of it.

To protect our private information from third parties, it is advised that when changing phone numbers, ensure to disconnect your phone number from all social media accounts, bank accounts, emails, and other accounts, as well as notify those who are close to us of the change.


(The Nigerian Lawyer)


AUTHOR:  Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi, SAN.

Mr. Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi, SAN is the Managing Partner of O. M. Atoyebi, S.A.N & Partners (OMAPLEX Law Firm) where he also doubles as the Team Lead of the Firm’s Emerging Areas of Law Practice.

Mr. Atoyebi has expertise in and a vast knowledge of Telecommunications, Media and Technology Law and this has seen him advise and represent his vast clientele in a myriad of high level transactions.  He holds the honour of being the youngest lawyer in Nigeria’s history to be conferred with the rank of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

Beyond his interests in law, the Learned Silk is an avid golfer, researcher, writer and a tech enthusiast.,


Joy is a member of the Technology Team at Omaplex Law Firm. She holds a commendable legal expertise in ICT law and privacy

[1] Section 4.8 of Standards National Numbering Plan Draft Development New Plan

[2] Section 4.7 of Standards National Numbering Plan Draft Development New Plan

[3]  Techcabal <accessed on 9th February 9, 2022>

[4] Ife Ogunfuwa “NCC assigns 357 million telephone numbers to operators”, <accessed 10/02/2022>

[5] Ebunoluwa Olafusi‘man arrested for using phone line previously owned by Buhari’s daughter sues dss’ The Cable (Abuja, January 2014) <accessed 11/02/2022>

[6]Express Web Desk, ‘spooky-theres-a-reason-why-the-phone-no-0888-888-888-has-been-suspended-all-its-users-are-dead’ <accessed 11/02/2022>

[7] Victoria Oloni ‘Data Protection 101’—Reduce–reuse–recycle-Telephone-number-recycling–Moses-Faya-e17668d <accessed 11/02/2022>

[8]NIMC, ‘Federal government Lauds Citizens, Extend NIN Sim Linkage by 8 Weeks’ NIMC < accessed on 17/02/2022>

About Bukola Olanrewaju

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