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What Do You Do When Your Dead Loved One Joins Telegram? – The Moral Dilemma of Reselling Phone Numbers

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Something interesting has emerged on social media on this cold, 5th day November, the year of our Lord, 2020. Boniface Mwangi, a renowned Kenyan activist-cum-politician, took to Twitter to complain that Safaricom had resold the phone number of a deceased friend.

The Twitter post opened up a can of worms and numerous Safaricom subscribers joined in to cry foul since a similar case has happened to them as well – where they have either travelled out of the country and came back to find that their old number is now in the hands of someone else or have had their deceased relative’s number has been reissued to an unsuspecting customer.

True, I can’t imagine getting a notification that your deceased mother is now on Telegram (this is what happened to Boniface Mwangi) – dark humour about afterlife aside, this occurrence has brought attention to a moral issue especially when it comes dealing with departed humans.

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Is Safaricom at Fault?

Before we jump on the bandwagon and throw rotten tomatoes at Kenya’s top telco for being immoral and selling our relatives’ and friends’ phone numbers for a few shillings to fatten their wallets, we should first try to understand why this happens.

According to a Safaricom representative that we talked to, they (the telco) are required by the regulator (Communications Authority of Kenya) to dispose of any phone numbers that have remained inactive for a period of 6 months consecutively and it applies to all telcos, not just Safaricom.

“When a Safaricom line is not topped up within a period of 6 months, it will be deleted and resold. The relatives can, however, request for change of ownership and access to MPESA,” reads Safaricom’s official response to Boniface Mwangi, collaborating the response we got.

This issue of memorialization is especially sensitive and even social media platforms like Twitter have found themselves on the receiving end

This has not only become an issue for people who leave the country for long trips, only to return and find that their phone numbers are no longer active or has been issued to a random Brayo from Roysambu, but it has also been a pain point for those who have found it hard to memorialize their lost family and friends since their phone numbers end up getting reissued.

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This issue of memorialization is especially sensitive and even social media platforms like Twitter have found themselves on the receiving end for wanting to delete inactive accounts which consequently means getting rid of accounts of deceased users.

So what exactly can be done? To borrow a leaf from Facebook, the platform introduced a way for family and friends to memorialize the account of people that are no longer alive. All you need is a death certificate, then reach out to Facebook and the account will be secured so that it isn’t deleted and also, no one can log in to that particular account.

The Moral Dilemma

Seeing that the issue here is the regulator (as far as we know), maybe in an effort to prevent telcos from reporting your dead loved ones as active subscribers, then an innovative solution needs to come from the regulator or at least pushed by the telcos.

For instance, the inactivity period should be raised from six months to at least 12. If this is not possible, telcos should make it possible for subscribers to report that they are travelling abroad for a certain period and would like to retain their phone numbers when they return.

Secondly, on the issue of memorialization, the Communications Authority of Kenya should make it possible for subscribers to apply to have their loved ones’ phone numbers memorialized. In this case, one would apply to have the details of the phone number frozen and prevent telcos from reselling the numbers after a certain period.

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However, since we haven’t been able to reach the CA for a comment on this, Safaricom did inform us that it is possible for you to transfer a departed relative’s phone number to be under your care and to ensure that it remains active, you can simply load 100 bob airtime to it every month. We know it’s a long shot and requires active participation but until the telecommunications industry is able to catch up with the needs of the 21st century, it’s the only option we have for now.

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