If you swim with the sharks of international telecoms for long enough, you tend to become a good storyteller. Andy Gent, CEO and owner of Revector, is proof of that. Invited to his London office to meet some of his developers and see a demonstration of their latest products, I find the conversation skips between Revector’s work on simbox fraud in Africa (a recurring news topic on Commsrisk), to what it was like to meet the Queen, to how some vendors of prepaid calling cards are cheating poor immigrants, to how a new mobile phone operating system might be the future of revenue assurance. “They’re a real innovation,” says Andy, expanding on the last point, and then he pulls two Samsung mobiles from his bag. “With our software installed, you take command and control of these phones remotely, using them to make whatever test calls you like. You’ve converted an ordinary retail phone into a great portable test device.”
Andy demonstrates his phones by launching a straightforward test scheduling interface on his laptop. He types in some parameters: the phones will make a random spread of test calls between 1s and 457s in duration. We then skip to the screen which shows the data collected by the phone. Software engineer Rob Bennell (pictured above right, holding one of the phones) jumped in to explain a key modification they made. “We found off the shelf phones aren’t that accurate with their timing of calls, so we changed the way the timings are recorded on the phone. It took a lot of work, but this software has been ported to a variety of handsets.”
Rob then tells me about a recent project where they found a major discrepancy between the duration of the call from the perspective of the A party and the B party – which also means a discrepancy between the duration as recorded for billing the customer, versus the duration per the carrier’s interconnect charge. This is just one of many issues which might be discovered through testing. Keen to explore all possibilities, I ask if the phones adapted by Revector can also be used like ordinary phones. “Pretty much,” is the answer. If the remote controlling software isn’t telling the handset to make calls, or to hang up, then the person carrying it has a regular phone in his hand – and also a location detector for criminals…
“The Revector Detector,” exclaims Andy, pulling up a new screen on the handset (pictured). Like one of the gadgets made for James Bond by Q, the phone is now a homing device, indicating how close it is to a base station. Like test calling, this has many possible uses, but one example would be identifying the location of IMSI-catchers, a transceiver that masquerades as an authentic base station from the user’s network, in order to track their location or intercept their calls. Andy sees location detection as a key opportunity for Revector; they have also developed their own highly-portable networked IMSI-catcher solution: ‘Revector Locator’. Whilst criminals like to catch IMSIs, the Revector Locator is used to catch criminals. “We use the Revector Locator whilst driving around foreign cities,” explains Andy. Showing me a map on Google Earth, Andy points at the screen and says: “for example, by analyzing the data captured, we found there was a simbox in this house.” His finger is pointing at an attractive villa with extensive gardens. “We identified the location, and the police raided the property the next morning.”
Andy’s story is another illustration of where he thinks fraud management and his business is headed: augmenting slick technology for fraud detection with project-based consultancy by experts with a deep understanding of fraud. To do this, Andy envisages Revector partnering with consulting firms whose work would be simplified and enhanced by using Andy’s cost-effective tools. In some ways, this is more realistic than trying to train lots of people so they have the proficiency to get the most value from Andy’s products. He goes on to comment that he spends a lot of time giving advice for free, only to find himself exploited. I sympathize with his observation: the people who share genuinely useful knowledge rarely receive a direct benefit for doing so.
Our chat about consultancy and training forces me to broach the trickiest subject of the day. Revector is primarily known for detecting illegal bypass. Their solutions make international calls, and where the routing has bypassed the network, the operator knows it should block the related SIM. Why does Revector want to diversify from a solid, well-established and easily-understood service, relevant to customers all over the world? Why pitch new services when bypass detection led them to win two prestigious Queen’s Awards for Enterprise – one for innovation, the other for international exports? Andy is frank with his answer. “The competition for bypass detection is fierce. We’re innovators in the field but we’ve seen other companies that previously focused on other services have started using bypass detection as their main pitch to prospective customers. At the same time, you can see from meeting our developers, we’ve always been in the business of innovating.”
It is no secret that I have retired from normal full-time work in the telecoms industry, so Andy is very direct when discussing his motives. “Like you, Eric,” he tells me, “I’m not satisfied by doing the same thing year after year. My passion is developing new things.” This passion is clearly genuine. As such, it is infectious, and the discussion hops from project to project, some historic, some planned for the future, too numerous to recount them all here. This passion is not just driven by profit. As evident from the breadth of conversation we engage in, Andy and his developers feel that combatting fraud has a moral aspect too. Fraud can be very profitable. It often involves internal collusion with employees inside the telco. Fighting organized crime can be difficult, and sometimes dangerous work. That is why the best anti-fraud work is done by people of high integrity, with a resolute moral character.
The theme of morality recurred at different points in our conversations, in lots of different ways. Paul Clarke, another developer at Revector (pictured above, left) told me how one of their projects demonstrated that certain prepaid calling cards – which are marketed as a cheap way for low-paid immigrant workers to phone their home country – are cheating customers by falsely representing what use customers will get from them. Revector are not alone in making this observation. In 2008, I interviewed Mario Margolis and Franco Primavesi of Networks Analytic Corporation about their study into the exploitation of Hispanic customers of prepaid calling cards in the USA. It was deeply disappointing to hear how the poorest in society continue to be abused.
This led us to discuss what could be done to draw attention to the issue of overcharging customers of low-end communications services. Of course, it is hard enough for a small business like Revector to influence telcos; we cannot expect them to lead the lobbying of politicians too. However, I do think there are opportunities to link independent testing to consumer protection. This is a topic I will return to in later articles, as I see many alternative possibilities for the technology supplied by firms like Revector, if they can find the right sponsors for such work. Telcos are currently being bashed by politicians who have taken their lead from intelligence agencies. It would be helpful to have more positive examples of the privately-owned telecoms sector using data and technology to protect the interests of ordinary people, without waiting or allowing politicians to take credit for it. For example, earlier this year we witnessed CEOs and executives of 40 large US tech firms lobbying their government over LGBT rights. Telcos often act to protect vulnerable groups, like children online, without waiting to be forced to do so by government. If telecoms and technology firms can behave in these ways, what stops us from more directly tackling the shady businesses who rip off the poorest in our society, by exposing how badly they behave compared to most comms providers?
On a lighter note, but still on the subject of integrity, it was clear that Paul was very impressed by the Queen. Paul accompanied Andy to the ceremony where Revector received their awards, and per his account, the Queen was quick to appreciate the purpose of telecoms fraud detection. If only every telco executive was as smart as Britain’s head of state!
After breaking for lunch at a nearby cafe, Andy and I found ourselves discussing how a small British technology firm should position themselves in a global market place. The route back to the Revector offices took us through nearby Trafalgar Square, an historic London location. As we walked across, Andy pointed out that Big Ben, the iconic clock of the British Houses of Parliament, was down the road from his office. After some bullying, he consented to let me take a photograph of him, with the landmark in the distance. It is not a good photo, but it does represent one conception for how a firm like Revector, which do not maintain an extravagant marketing budget, might compete around the world. Fraud and crime are inherently linked to corruption. Corruption occurs in all sorts of places. It might be the corruption of a telco employee who is paid by criminals to collude with fraud, or the corruption of criminal communications enterprises who cheat other businesses, or it might be the corruption of government overseers who fail to do their job properly. Corruption is best tackled by people of integrity, and that integrity is demonstrated by being transparent, and building up a reputation over time.
Though I often find fault with politicians, Britain’s mother of parliaments is as good a symbol of integrity as we are likely to find in the political world, and Britain’s reputation abroad can still be an asset to firms like Revector. I was also glad that Andy introduced me to his developers. Maybe it is because I started my career as an auditor, but when I worked in telcos I always learned a lot more by visiting a supplier’s premises and chatting with their staff, than I would ever gain from a salesman coming to my office, or taking me to dinner at a fancy restaurant. I liked how Andy’s team freely chipped in with observations and asides – though I hope the conversations did not disrupt their work too much! Some CEOs and marketeers do everything they can to keep their back room staff away from outsiders. They fear that ordinary employees might say the ‘wrong’ thing – which means they might say something truthful which undermines the company’s carefully crafted image. Encouraging me to talk freely with Revector’s developers shows Andy is not just spinning a story about his passion for the work Revector does. The same passion was evident in his team.
Having spoken with Andy, Paul and Rob at length, we covered far too many topics to present in one article. They have other interesting products that are already available to the market, or which are in their pipeline. Their views on which products will be the biggest winners are not identical to my own; I chose to highlight their repurposing of retail mobile phones as test generators because I think this product has the most varied potential, if telcos and other prospective customers have the imagination to realize the potential.
In the real world, there have been many good technological products which worked well but failed to inspire customers in the ways they might. Sometimes this comes down to marketing, on other occasions it is just a matter of timing. Leadership is also a factor. Using ordinary phones as test generators is innovative, but not all innovation is technological in nature. I would like to see others respond by developing methods and practices that take advantage of this new tool. Given the technology involved, the costs of a trial would be minimal. Revector won the Queen’s award for innovation, but leaders inside telcos also need to step up, and to try out new ideas.
Andy told me he seeks partnerships with a variety of organizations. He is right to do so. Consultants could certainly use Revector’s tools. In addition, I hope to see plenty of ambition when looking for different kinds of sponsors and users of this tech. If ordinary telephones can double as sophisticated test devices, this opens the door to creative new ways to realize consumer protection goals. I will write more about this in future. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing more stories about Revector and their market-leading products.