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WhoseApp?

Why you may get WhatsApp messages from people you’ve never heard of before.

Suddenly, my friend got a load of WhatsApp photos. They were pictures the sender had taken during a trip to the Himalayas. Nothing out of the ordinary. Evidently, he had just returned home, and was now sharing them with his own friends and family.

There was only one thing amiss: my friend was neither friend not family. In fact, he had never heard of the sender at all.

This wasn’t the his first contact with an unknown person. The previous sender had written a much simpler message: he simply said, “Hi”.
“Who’s this?” my friend asked, because the number wasn’t in his contacts.

The name the sender gave didn’t match with anyone my friend knew. He double-checked with his family, but they didn’t know the person either. “I’m sorry,” he finally replied, “I think you’ve got the wrong number”.

Phone-number dialling mistakes are easy to spot, especially if you give the person a ring as soon as you type it in. They can confirm that you’ve got it right, or — if it’s someone else who answers — that you’ve got it wrong. These days, a ‘missed call’ is the usual way to exchange numbers. If I tell you my number, you can punch it in and try calling me. If my phone rings, I’ll have your number, and you’ll know you got mine right.

And how will you know if you didn’t get my number right? Well, you’ll soon get a call from someone saying “I got a missed call from this number…”

Things become trickier when the number is already saved somewhere. It was some years ago that my Electricity Board started sending out electricity bill details by SMS for convenience. My family started getting electricity details for three different households, neither of which was our own.

So my father went to the Electricity Board office to complain. “Don’t worry”, they said, entering our correct phone number into our account. Now the correct electricity bill would come to us.

And what about the three extra, unwanted bills? It turned out that all three accounts had our own number in the ‘Phone Number’ field. The number couldn’t be erased because the field was mandatory. So, they just changed a few digits around instead.
“So, where will the messages go now?” my father asked.
“I don’t know”, was the reply. “Somewhere —it could be Coimbatore, Trichy, Mumbai — the owners of these numbers will start getting the notifications.”
“And will they be able to stop the messages?”
“No, unless they come here to this office and make us change the number.”

The amount of money in the bank-account varies considerably. Sometimes there are thousands of rupees in there; other times it’s no more than a few hundreds. Once in a while, a huge lump sum of money gets transferred in. Ten thousand; twenty thousand; maybe even fifty thousand.

Interestingly, money never seems to get transferred out to anyone else. It’s usually withdrawn through an ATM: a five thousand here, a two thousand there, or, if a lot is needed ate once, then three ten-thousands in quick succession. (Ten thousand is the maximum you can get from an ATM in one transaction, which is why thirty-thousand can’t be done all at once).

Of late, the account has also started being used on PoS machines: the devices where you swipe your card to pay at a shop or restaurant.

And to whom does this bank account belong? I haven’t the faintest idea. But I know what it’s doing, because I get an SMS notification every time a transaction is made.

The Electricity Board had a new SMS system. They needed to fill in phone-numbers even though they didn’t know what they were. So they took phone-numbers they already had — like ours — and used them to fill the empty numbers in that branch. Even if that doesn’t make sense, it almost does.

But, a bank sending account details and notifications to a random number? Even though banks have been using SMSes for quite some time? Is that even possible?

Anything is possible, but here’s a more likely explanation. It’s based on the fact that phone-numbers can be re-used.

Some people, especially in India, don’t always keep the same phone-number. They often switch to a new provider, which has better connectivity or coverage, or which is offering a better deal.

Number porting is easier these days. You can switch from Vodafone to Aircel or Idea to Docomo while still keeping your old phone-number. But people often find it more convenient to start afresh. Maybe they want to test out the provider first, before making the switch. Or perhaps they keep several SIMs, using whichever one works best for whatever they’re doing at the moment.

Whatever the reason, lots of phone-numbers get discarded every year. People just throw away the SIM. There are 2 billion possible mobile numbers in India, and with 1.3 billion people, they’ll start running short unless some numbers are re-used.

That’s why, if a phone number hasn’t been used for six months, companies are are allowed to “recycle” them and give them to someone else.

So it’s quite possible that my phone-number did once belong to the owner of the bank-account. It must have been discarded, and its owner, not using mobile banking, never bothered to update the phone details of the bank-account. So when I got the number, more than six months later, that person’s notifications would have started coming to me.

The problem is, the bank assumes that phone-numbers never change. Or rather, more sensibly, it assumes that people will inform it when they change their phone-numbers.

What does assume that phone-numbers never change is WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is now one of the world’s most popular messaging apps. But did you know that, when it first started, WhatsApp wasn’t a messaging app at all?

The idea behind WhatsApp was to have a sort of status message for your contacts. You can set your status to “I’m in a meeting” or “Having lunch” or anything else you care to type in. Then, your contacts who have WhatsApp installed can see your status message and know what you’re up to.

People won’t have to ask “Is this a convenient time to call?” because they can simply see if it’s a convenient time to call.

When WhatsApp was first released, that’s exactly how it worked. But then came Push Notifications. That’s a feature Apple added to the iPhone, and which is used by all modern smartphones today. (Some people say it’s actually used a bit too often).

When Push Notifications first came out in 2009, WhatsApp was quick to make use of it. Now, people could be notified when any of their contacts changed their WhatsApp status.

At this time, WhatsApp was still mainly used by friends of its creators, which means that more or less everyone knew everyone else. With Push Notifications, they started using WhatsApp as an informal messaging system. One person would set their status message to a question like “What’s happening?” or “Hey how are you?”. Eventually, a few people would changing their statuses in response. It was fun, and it was free. Or, at least, it it was much cheaper than using SMSes.

Every SMS cost money. International SMSes were (and still are) very expensive. For WhatsApp, on the other hand, all you needed was a working Internet connection, and you could send a message to anyone you wanted in the whole wide world!

Of course, you had to send it not just to anyone you wanted, but also to everyone you didn’t want, who just happened to be in your contact list. The developers took note of this, and rebuilt WhatsApp into a proper messaging app.

But one aspect of the old app still remained: its accounts were tied to phone-numbers, and you got your WhatsApp contacts from your phone’s contact list.

So what happens if you phone’s contact-list is outdated? What if, for instance, one of your contacts has stopped using their number, and that number is now recycled and given to someone else?

That’s probably what happened in my friends’ case. The random couple who was messaging him must have known the previous owner of the number: the person who had it before my friend got it. And when my friend used his number to connect to WhatsApp, he automatically got connected to the random couple as well!

So what would happen if you used your number to sign in to WhatsApp, and then discarded the number later? Probably, the next person to get that number will get control of your WhatsApp account too. Will they be able to read your old messages and look at your old photos and videos?

Maybe not. WhatsApp might ask them for your password, which they won’t have. But that means the new owner of the number won’t be able to use WhatsApp at all!

Luckily, changing your phone-number doesn’t mean you have to change your account. WhatsApp lets you switch to a different number in the settings, and use that to sign in instead.

Still, when you’re messaging someone after a long gap, it’s a good idea to make sure the number is still theirs. Maybe time to fall back to that age-old phrase: “May I know who’s speaking?”

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Badri Sunderarajan

Badri Sunderarajan

Books reader, Websites coder, Drawings maker. Things writer. Occasional astronomer. Alleged economist. Editor@Snipette.

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