THE GREAT GAMBLERS
How telecom operators swindle unwary Nigerians of several billions of Naira via promo sham.
The incessant short messages (sms) sent to subscribers’ phones are too promising to ignore. The game-show prize-money is so stupendous to jettison. Thus, ubiquitous media glitz spun by various telecoms firms through wild sales promos, tempting game (gambling) shows, and misleading sms solicitations has continued to catch in its webs unwary and greedy subscribers.
As early as 4:00am almost every weekend, Saturday or Sunday, scores of youths and a mix of adults troop to Murhi International Plaza, in Ikeja, Lagos, to put down their names in a register, as audience-participants in a game-show. At about 7:30am, the about hundred early birds are given a tag each, by personnel Ultima Ventures – producers of the show -, as pass to enter the game auditorium. With keen eyes and palpitating hearts each one in the audience sits, hopeful of sitting on the ‘hot seat’. Welcome to the most popular TV quiz-show in Nigeria: MTN’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. To participate in the studio-play, a subscriber sends an SMS with his name and phone number to 132 and a question is sent to him. Then, the subscriber sends back an answer through SMS. SMS charges are: N 200. If the subscriber is successful he will be notified through a confirmatory message inviting him to participate in the studio programme. Usually, 120 subscribers are invited to the studio from which eight will be short-listed for the ‘hot seat’. The remaining 112 people will form the in-studio audience. The eight short-listed subscribers take turns on the hot seat. Questions are asked and as the participant gets the right answer to each question, he wins prize money. The biggest prize is N10million. The remaining 112 people invited to the studio are left to contest for the twenty N20, 000 slots.
The audience participation part of the show, called fastest fingers, illustrates this. The winner of this segment gets N20, 000. Well, almost. To get the N20, 000, however, National Standard investigations revealed that the winner must present an MTN SIM certificate (to prove he is a genuine subscriber), a photocopy of his identity card, passport photograph and his birth certificate. The winner is also required to buy recharge card up to the value of N1, 000. Two weeks after the show has been aired, and then the winner will be contacted on further steps to collect his cash prize. This magazine also found out that rather than MTN Nigeria, the bank form issued to its game-show beneficiaries has Ultima Ventures, producers of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, as account holder.
Little wonder it was a shocking and disappointing experience for 21-year-old Sola Emmanuel, a student, and one of the fastest fingers winners, when he went to the bank to withdraw his N20, 000 cash prize. “When I got to the bank to get my cash reward I was surprised when told that 5% withholding tax, 5% Lagos state gambling tax and other bank charges would be deducted from my N20, 000. This is baffling. If it is a game show or promo why would they be deducting 5% gambling tax? I felt cheated and used as a puppet in a gambling show,” Sola narrated. At the end of the day, Emmanuel left the bank with the sum of N17, 895 instead of the N20, 000 he won. But there is more to the show than meets the eye.
Each week, MTN Nigeria rakes in N1.665 billion, N6.660 billion each month and N79.920 billion each year. This is based on the conservative estimate that at least a quarter (8,325,000) of MTN’s 33.3 million subscribers send an sms each (costing N200) to participate in the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. With the home-play version, using the same estimate, the firm makes N39.960 billion each year. With the combined figures (excluding proceeds from other promos), MTN Nigeria grosses at least N119, 880, 000, 000 in a year. That is just the tip of the iceberg.
Adegoke, an elderly man, had a nasty experience with Globacom Bid2Win promo. Lured by lucre and the unrelenting text messages that bombarded his cell phone, he expended N420, 000 in the hopeless bid to become a millionaire. “I got frequent sms from GLO, encouraging me to continue playing. They said I was near to winning N1 million. So I continued playing till it dawned on me that it was all trick. I had already spent over N420, 000,” Adegoke said. As proof of his extensive elusive investment in Globacom Bid2Win, he made a public display of the many GLO recharge cards he had purchased to participate in the GSM company gambling game referred to as a promo. Zain and Etisalat are also involved in what has become sleazy, corporate gambling.
Then enters GLO. With a subscriber base hitting more 25 million as at June last year, Wale Adenuga’s telecom giant is also eating deep into the insufferable skin of its customers. Take for instance its text-to-win promo. In that promo alone, Globacom grosses N30, 000, 000, 000 on the approximation that only a quarter of its more than 25 million subscribers play in the gamble a la promo. Thus, every month, GLO pockets at least N2.5 billion. That is discounting the fact that the GSM firm has other gambling gimmicks from which more money are effortlessly raked in. Not to be over-looked also are one-off subscribers – who get on the network just to participate in any of the promos. If all these are factored in what will be revealed would be a staggering sum.
But, there is no letting up in the telecoms industry as all the firms hold sway in a field that appears devoid of a regulator. New-comer Etisalat, Nigeria’s fifth GSM operator is feeding on the promo fever too. Since its arrival, Etisalat has stormed the industry with mouth-watering offers such as, Exactly June 17 last year, the GSM firm claimed to have hit a subscriber base of 1 million. To qualify for the express ticket to the grand finale in the critically acclaimed 9jillions one million dollar game show, customers who had spent up to a thousand naira within the month just needed to text the state they live and their full name to the short code 5123. Multiple entries are allowed. With an estimated figure of 250, 000 subscribers participating each month, with at least double entries for six months, Etisalat would have netted N1.5 billion. You can go on and on multiplying that amount by number of greedy fingers the Nigerian population can proudly produce.
“Confidential information!” the text message from Zain Nigeria said. “Text WIN to 222 now and you fit win N2 million cash from Zain. Costs N100/sms,” the text pitched. Another came in a hurried, secretive fashion, begging: “Abeg, your name don come out to win N2 million. Make you no tell anybody. Just text WIN to 222.” Welcome to Zain Nigeria – the most erratic, in terms of management, GSM operator in the country. As many times it had changed name, it had also changed management. But, that is a story for another day. That is Zain’s Wake up To Be a Millionaire. The above-quoted text messages are apparent testimony of the mad dash by Zain to defraud Nigerians of their hard-earned money, by hook or by crook. Not satisfied with its six-week Zain Naira Rain promo, Zain in its current text-to-win N2 million is mind-boggling. Zain Nigeria executives will be smiling and patting their rotund bellies as at least N500 million naira is realised in a week based on the rough estimate that 5 million of its over 20 million subscribers forfeit N100 weekly.
Typically, though there has been talk of sanctions, there is no regulatory agency wielding the big stick on the telecoms companies defrauding their subscribers in the name of promos and game shows. But the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, was quick to absolve itself of any complicity in the defrauding promotions being done by the GSM firms. “Our business at NCC is to regulate service provision and not sales promotions but the NCC, CPC, Lottery Commission, will meet to look into who regulates what. Operators should have a code that can allow a consumer not to receive unsolicited SMS,” said Ernest Ndukwe, erstwhile executive secretary of NCC.
Unlike the lukewarm response of NCC to the raging issue of wanton gambling by the GSM operators, the National Lottery Regulatory Commission, NLRC, expressed certain degree of concern at the 55th edition of Telecom Consumer Parliament, where subscribers have opportunity to air their complaints. “Our concern is that you do not tell customers that you are rewarding them when you are ripping them off by engaging them in a game of chance. You do not expect customers to load their phones to reward them. Operators should not tell customers they are rewarding them when they are doing sales. You do not have to tell a consumer to load certain amount of money with certain code to qualify for a particular scheme. What many service providers are doing is a game of chance. They lure customers through unsolicited text messages to enter into sales promotion. If any operator engages in lottery in the name of sales promotions, the National Lottery Regulatory Commission will get interested. We are more concerned when a reward scheme becomes lottery in the name of promo,” said Barrister Osa Uwadiae, the Assistant Director, Enforcement & Compliance of National Lottery Regulatory Commission. Great sound bite that was.
Section 7(c) of the National Lottery Act says, “[the commission shall] promote transparency, propriety and integrity in the operation of national lottery;” and (d) maintains that the commission shall “ensure the protection of interests of players, stakeholders and the public in the national lottery.” And section 17 adds, “…the operation of the business of a national lottery or any lottery, by whatever name called, shall be subject to a license granted by the president upon recommendation by the commission and compliance with the provisions of this Act or any regulations made pursuant thereto.” The questions are: did the presidency grant these GSM operators the licence to engage in lottery in the guise of promos? Is the National Lottery Regulatory Commission ensuring the protection of interests of subscribers? Is the commission promoting transparency, propriety and integrity by feigning ignorance of the ‘gambling in disguise promos’?
While it is instructive to note that the National Lottery Regulatory Commission, NLRC, by its enabling Act (2005) is empowered to authorize and supervise promos, many subscribers have found it perplexing that it has not come to their aid. According to the telecoms industry observers, the National Lottery Regulatory Commission cannot feign ignorance that the ripping off of GSM subscribers has been going on for a long time before now. In 2009, the Consumer Advocacy Forum of Nigeria CAFON and the National Telecom Subscribers of Nigeria (NATCOMS) raised an alarm over frauds called promotions by Nigeria’s GSM firms. According to CAFON, “what many companies do is lottery not promo as they rip off Nigerians because they know that many Nigerians do not know their rights”. The Forum accused regulatory bodies of ‘having been bought over by the companies as they look the other way when subscribers complain’.
This is no doubt a matter of urgent public concern, as it is worrying that GSM companies, employing deceits and sometimes outright lies, are fast becoming gambling institutions treating their customers with impunity. Even more disquieting is the fact that the concerned authority has yet to call for refund to all swindled subscribers. Maybe, as always, the GSM consumers are being taken for a ride and the hand of the law is too short to protect and make restitutions for them.