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Blocking of bogus calls by telecommunications operators
2015-10-28

Following is a question by the Hon Charles Peter Mok and a written reply by the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Gregory So, in the Legislative Council today (October 28):

Question:

The Police indicated in August this year that on requests made by the Police for the purpose of cracking down on phone scams, telecommunications service operators (TSOs) had disconnected more than 50 000 suspicious telephone calls.  However, the Police have not given an account of the legal basis for the aforesaid requests.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the provisions in the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap. 106) and other relevant legislation which govern the acts of disconnecting telephone calls or message transmission by TSOs;

(2) given that subsection (1) of section 24 of Cap. 106 makes it an offence for telecommunications officers, etc., doing certain acts to a message, but that provision does not apply to any act done by such persons for the purposes prescribed in subsection (2) of that section, whether the authorities have assessed (i) if the aforesaid acts of disconnecting telephone calls constitute an offence under subsection (1)(c) of that section (i.e., “wilfully abstain[ing] from transmitting any message or wilfully intercept[ing] or detain[ing] or delay[ing] any message”), and (ii) (if so) if such acts were done for any of the purposes prescribed in subsection (2) of that section; if they have assessed, of the outcome and justifications;

(3) of the legal basis for the Police to request TSOs to disconnect the telephone calls;

(4) given that under Special Condition 3.1 of the Unified Carrier Licence, the licensees shall, irrespective of whether they provide fixed, mobile and/or converged services, observe the same requirement on interconnection so as to ensure any-to-any connectivity among users of telecommunications services, whether it has assessed if the aforesaid acts of disconnecting telephone calls are in breach of such condition; if it has assessed, of the outcome;

(5) when the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) became aware of the aforesaid operation of disconnecting suspicious telephone calls; of OFCA’s role in such operation; whether the Police and OFCA consulted TSOs on the operation beforehand; and

(6) whether it knows if the Communications Authority (CA) will initiate studies to clarify whether the aforesaid acts of disconnection of telephone calls are in breach of the law or the relevant licence conditions?

Reply:

President,

(1) Section 24(1)(c) of the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap. 106) (TO) provides that a telecommunications officer, or any person who, though not a telecommunications officer, has official duties in connection with a telecommunications service, shall not wilfully abstain from transmitting any message or wilfully intercept or detain or delay any message.  The full text of section 24 of the TO is at Annex.

(2) and (3) According to the information provided by the Security Bureau, as stipulated in section 10 of the Police Force Ordinance (Cap. 232), the Police have the duties to prevent crimes and safeguard the property of the public.

There were a total of 1 370 telephone deception cases recorded by the Police in the first six months of this year, a rise of 16.3 per cent against the same period in 2014, which involved a total monetary loss of $47 million.  The number of such cases even reached 1 001 in the month of July alone, a surge of 3.6 times compared with 217 in the same month of 2014, with a monetary loss of $129 million.  In view of the above, there has been a pressing need for the Police to take decisive measures against such crimes.

Among such telephone deception cases, the three most common modes of operation are “Fake Kidnapping”, “Guess Who” and “Pretend as Mainland Officials”, and, among these three, there has been a more visible increase in the number of “Pretend as Mainland Officials” cases.  By making use of the relevant applications to spoof caller IDs, fraudsters make calls via the Voice over Internet Protocol services outside Hong Kong, presenting themselves as Mainland Officials to cheat the victims.

To effectively tackle this kind of fraud, in addition to stepping up publicity education on all fronts through various channels, as well as enhancing co-operation and intelligence exchange with overseas and Mainland law enforcement agencies, the Police have explored feasible response measures with OFCA and the telecommunications industry, in a bid to lessen the chance of public deception.  In an effort to help the public identify incoming calls from outside Hong Kong, OFCA requests all telecommunications operators to insert a “+” sign in the calling number display (CND) of mobile phones as a prefix for all incoming calls originating from outside Hong Kong.  Furthermore, working in conjunction with major mobile telecommunications operators, the Police have sent short messages to remind the public on telephone deception prevention, with a view to disseminating such a message in a more direct and extensive manner.  Individual telecommunications operators are also willing to take measures to prevent their customers from loss through deception by blocking calls with spoofed IDs, with the aim of tackling bogus phone calls from a few organisations confirmed by the Police with sufficient evidence as being impersonated by fraudsters.  Prior consent has been obtained by the Police from such organisations.

Subsequent to a series of measures and with the assistance from various sectors of the community, telephone deception cases involving “Pretend as Mainland Officials” dropped to 147 in August and further to 43 in September 2015.  The Police shall continue to keep a close watch on the trend and pattern of such deception cases.  Rigorous enforcement actions shall be taken in an all-out effort against such crimes.

(4) Special Condition 3.1 of the Carrier Licence provides that licensees shall interconnect their services and networks with the networks and services of other telecommunications licensees where directed by the CA to ensure that their customers can have access to any other customers of the networks and services provided by other telecommunications licensees.

The CA has not noticed any case or received any complaint from telecommunications licensees recently concerning refusals of carrier licensees for interconnection of their networks and services.  In addition, the CA has not received any request from telecommunications licensees for issuance of a direction pursuant to the aforementioned licence condition.

As regards individual telecommunications service subscribers, Special Conditions 3.1 of the Carrier Licence is not applicable to cases where failure of interconnection to other networks and services is due to breakdown, damage or interception of circuits, network outage, etc.

(5) The Police held a number of meetings with OFCA and telecommunications operators with a view to identifying ways to tackle telephone scams.  OFCA subsequently decided to request telecommunications operators to insert a “+” sign in the CND of mobile phones as a prefix for all incoming calls originating from outside Hong Kong, thereby enabling the public to identify from the CND that the origination of the incoming calls is from outside Hong Kong.

The screening-out of bogus calls from fraudsters faking the telephone numbers of certain organisations is a collaborative effort between the Police and individual telecommunications operators, with the aim of safeguarding their customers by blocking calls confirmed to be made with bogus numbers.  The CA and OFCA have not been involved in such measure.

(6) The CA has been investigating cases concerning breaches of legislation or licensing conditions in accordance with established procedures.  At present, we do not have any information to provide.

Ends/Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Issued at HKT 14:02

Office Of Hon. Charles Mok, Legislative Councillor (IT)