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Absurd KYC Norms of Cellphone Companies
If you want a second telephone from a mobile service provider from whom you already have an existing connection, wouldn’t you think it is a simple task of paying the additional charges or security deposit? After all, the phone company has already completed the know your customer (KYC) process and has all your documents on record. Well, think again.

If you call Vodafone for a second phone line, you are told, “We need two photographs, your ration card or MTNL (Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited) bill as an address proof!” Asked why they needed the proof again, they ascribe it to the ‘Mumbai terror attacks’. The bigger question is: why does Vodafone require an MTNL phone bill? Does it have no confidence on its own address verification process and would like to pin the responsibility, albeit indirectly, on a public sector company?

Airtel has a unique answer to the proof of address issue. They claim that their own bills are, indeed, proof, but want a ration card or an MTNL bill as a secondary address proof. Surely, this is another case where the company does not trust its own KYC norms.

And what happens to customers who do not have a MTNL landline? How are they to meet the KYC requirements, that too for an additional line from the same telephone company? Why cannot the Telephone Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ensure that private phone companies do a reliable job on the KYC rules?

Achintya Mukherjee, honorary secretary of the Bombay Telephone Users’ Association (BTUA) says, “Telephone connections are increasing rapidly because cell phone providers are scrambling for spectrum. The more connections they provide, the better their chances of cornering spectrum. So they are giving connections to all sorts of people and this results in the addresses being unreliable. The fear of being exposed forces them to ask for other bills such as MTNL phone bills for address proof. I can give you my own personal experience. I was in a small town of Gujarat and wanted a cellphone connection, for which I approached a dealer, since there was no company representative there. I was told that I could get a pre-paid connection and not bother about any KYC documents as long as I made an advance payment. If phones are handed out in this manner, it is not surprising they are asking for MTNL phone bills, since they are not sure about their own verification method.”

However, Mahesh Uppal, director of Com First (India) Pvt Ltd has a different viewpoint. He says, that mobile phone companies probably want to ensure that a “subscriber is legit” by getting an appropriate and verifiable address since mobile phones are not kept at fixed places but are carried around by a person and, hence, prone to abuse. However, this still does not explain why mobile companies do not trust the address proof on their own bills, while granting a second connection to the subscriber who has already complied with the verification process. TRAI needs to step in to ensure that identification and address verification standards are the same across the industry and subscribers are not made to waste time and resources providing the same set of documents several times over.

In developed nations, such as the US, a social security database contains correct and current information about every individual in the country. Security concerns have forced India to introduce strict rules for identity and address verification of anyone who opens a bank account, a trading account with a broker, a mutual fund account, a television cable connection or seeks to acquire a phone line or an electricity connection. These are known as KYC rules. Since there is no common central database, every individual is forced to submit such verification documents under the KYC rules as are acceptable to every agency providing these services – but what do you do when the rules are applied so absurdly that their only objective seems to be to harass the consumer who is otherwise supposed to be king?

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