Philippine mobile phone digital payments Manila smartphone
About 70% of Filipinos have access to the internet, primarily via mobile phones. Payments using digital cash, such as Gcash and PayMaya, are on the rise in the Philippines, with 1 trillion pesos changing hands in 2020 via GCash alone. Image Credit: File


  • Official seek SIM card registration, alongside a National ID system now being rolled out, to improve traceability of users
  • 7 out of 10 Filipinos use the internet, a majority of whom via mobile phones
  • Legislators are weighing privacy issues against public security benefits of move
  • Supporters say it will encourage more responsble mobile phone use, and curb use of cellphones to set off bombs
  • Critics warn it such a would lead to identity theft and create a black market for unregistered mobile phones

CLARK, PAMPANGA: Mobile phone scams and terror bomb blasts are not uncommon in the Philippines, thanks in part to the ease with which unregistered pre-paid mobile phone SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards can be bought and sold.

Legislations mandating SIM card registrations have been proposed but nothing came out of them, bogged down in the legislative mill. But there's a rising clamour for its passage, this time for quite a different reason.

Now, the Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is pushing for mandatory SIM card registration  — already practised in most countries —apparently to combat the increasing incidents of fake bookings through delivery apps.

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, in a briefing to the state-run PTV4 on Friday, said in Filipino: “One of our proposals is the registration of cellphone cards or SIM so there will be traceability.”

One legislation pending in the Philippines’ upper legislative chamber, the 24-member Senate, seeks to mandate end-users of prepaid SIM cards to present a valid ID with photograph and to sign a control-numbered registration form issued by the service provider. The lower house, the 304-seat House of Representatives, had already passed its own version of the bill on third and final reading in May 2018.

In July 2019, Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson sponsored Senate Bill 25, dubbed as the “Prepaid Subscriber Identity Module ( SIM) Cards Regulations Act of 2019,” which seeks to address the “so-called" Tapon-SIM Scams and Crimes” (Throwaway-SIM Scams and Crimes).

Local media reported recently that a family in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila, fell victim to fake delivery bookings amounting to 15,000 pesos (about $300) worth of food. This forced the family and their neighbours to fork out the amount to pay for items which none of them had ordered.

Rosmar Tan, a local vlogger, also reportedly fell victim to a fake delivery booking, and was forced to pay almost 15,000 pesos worth of items she did not order. Lopez, the DTI secretary, urged citizens and residents to use online payment channels as another tool against fake bookings.

High profile victim

One high-profile victim of online delivery fraud is a senator. On January 14, 2021, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian had pushed for mandatory registration of SIM cards after he fell to a 1-million-peso ($20,000) credit card hack.

The perpetrators managed to charge Gatchalian's credit card for an online food delivery after gaining access to a security feature on web-based services — the One-Time Password (OTP) — using a prepaid mobile phone. “When fraudsters gain access to OTPs, it’s as if they’re the actual owners of the account doing the transaction,” Gatchalian told local media.

Anonymity vs identity

The senator said it is now “imperative” to regulate SIM card sales and distribution to improve tracing of unlawful activities. Similar measures had also been filed in both houses of Congress — but its passage remains elusive due to data privacy concerns.

SIM registration has been largely effective in curbing crime. Some gangs, however, have resorted to identity theft to carry out criminal activity (mobile phones used SIM cards purchased with stolen identity). Also, SIM card registration in some countries have created a black market to service those wishing to remain anonymous. There’s also a concern about how SIMs can be illegally cloned, or how criminals can use foreign SIMs on roaming mode, to circumvent SIM registration requirements.

Philippine officials said there are legal remedies prescribed by proposed legislation to curb abuses. A SIM registration regime, combined with the Philippine National ID system, now undergoing a rollout, could help significantly boost security in a country of more than 110 million inhabitants

Gatchalian’s Senate Bill (No. 176, "SIM Card Registration Act") mandates end-users of prepaid SIM cards to present a valid ID and photo and sign a control-numbered registration form, copies of which shall be furnished to the service provider and the National Telecommunications Commission, the industry regulator. The two versions, S.B. 25 and S.B. 176, may first have to be consolidated, before they get harmonised with the House version. It is unknown at this point when this would happen, if at all.

Why register SIM cards?

The Philippines is one of the few countries in the world where SIM card registration is not mandated. Lacson and Gatchalian argue that requiring a valid ID as a condition for the purchase and activation of a SIM card makes users more responsible and limits the risk of misuse of a SIM card.

Supporters of the legislation also believe allowing the state to know the identity of a SIM card's owner, and the person most likely making a call or sending a message, could lead to more responsible use of technology. Critics say it could expose end-users to abuse, leading to a loss of privacy of communications. 

Benefits: digital payments

One potential benefit of pre-paid SIM card registration include facilitation of citizens' access to e-Government services. This could include a more efficient distribution of the $2.2 billion (106 billion pesos) conditional cash transfer for the poorest of the poor (known as “4Ps") earmarked this 2021. In theory, with SIM card registration, such regular government doleouts can be sent as digital cash, greatly improving transactions velocity.

It could also potentially boost digital payments, lessen the cost of handling, improve quality of life and responsible citizenship overall. Perhaps the biggest payoff is security, as mobile phones had been used by terrorists on several occasions to off bombs that randomly kill people and disrupt normal life.

One downside is abuse or misuse of information by people who have access to it, as well as data leaks. Critics say the law must provide protection against such risk.

Philippine bombings triggered by cellphones

Officials have detected mostly cell phone-triggered explosives while poring through security records:

  • January 27, 2019: Security footage of a bombing shows one of the bombers holding a mobile phone that was used to trigger bomb blasts that targeted two Church in southern Philippines.
  • September 4, 2016: A blast in Davao City used a mobile phone as a trigger an improvised explosive device (IED) detonation, according to police.
  • January 26, 2011: Five people were killed in Manila when mortar triggered by a cellphone was detonated in a bus.
Upshot for SIM registration
It's doable: There are an estimated 68 million unregistered pre-paid SIM cards in the Philippines. Postpaid subscribers already do SIM registration, with about 2 million postpaid subscribers having registered their names against their SIM cards. This post-paid experience shows adding pre-paid SIM cards into the system is doable.

It's a deterrent: Knowing any misuse can be traced more easily and penalised, users may refrain from maligning, threatening, scamming or defrauding others. Or worse, use it for terrorist activities.

Blocking scammers: Listing SIM card users will also make it easier to block fraudsters from using anonymous numbers to rip off or terrorise people.

SIM Replaceability: If a SIM card number registered to your name is stolen or lost, you can request the SIM card to be de-activated and get a replacement (a facility available for post-paid SIM card users).