The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) issued an order dated March 28 asking for a temporary suspension of the USSD-based call forwarding service. The order cited the rise of online fraud and misuse of the facility as the reason for the action. It’s a temporary suspension, meaning the government agency doesn’t intend to disable it permanently, but the official letter didn’t specify a date for its reinstatement. Notably, the agency launched the Chakshu portal last month as a means for people in India to report suspected fraud.

In an order, the transport ministry said it has noticed that the USSD-based call forwarding facility is being “misused in some unwarranted activities”, pointing to its use for online fraud and scams. The shutdown also hints at the facility’s security vulnerability. “In this regard, it has been decided by the competent authority that all licensees shall discontinue the existing USSD based call forwarding services with effect from 15.04.2024 until further notice,” added the regulator.

The timing of the shutdown may also be related to minimizing the spread of misinformation amid the upcoming Lok Sabha elections scheduled to begin on April 19. Once the ban takes effect, users will not be able to activate the service by entering the *401# code. For all users who already have service enabled on their phone number, the order reads, “All existing subscribers who have activated USSD based call forwarding service may be asked to re-activate call forwarding services through alternative methods , to ensure that such services are not activated without their notice.”

USSD or Unstructured Supplementary Service Data is a session-based text messaging service that does not require sending an SMS and is instead activated by entering a specific code on the dial screen. These codes trigger specific telecom services such as balance information, activation of caller tunes, details of internet usage and call forwarding. As these services are provided by the telecom operator, there is no need to download an app.

Recently, however, this feature has been misused by cybercriminals. Multiple reports have found that scammers pretended to be customer service representatives from the victim’s bank or telecom operator and had them dial the call forwarding code 401 followed by a number that was already in the scammers’ hands . Once call forwarding was enabled, they could intercept any calls, including voice OTPs, to steal the victim’s money and sensitive data.

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