The pandemic has pushed our major parts of our lives online and the unintended consequence of it has been a subsequent increase in online scams and frauds.
Take the case of 28-year-old Charles Aphrem, who lives in IC Colony, Borivali West. Charles along with his friends decided to go for a weekend break to Alibaug on 21 August 2020. He came across a post on Facebook, where a certain Harish Parmer had advertised a stay at Alibaug for Rs 2500 per person (including all meals) for a day. The photos looked legitimate and upon further investigation, Charles saw that Harish had other properties to offer in Badlapur and Pawna Lake. “We have been in lockdown for six months and needed a break desperately. The deal offered was very attractive and I, along with two of my friends, booked it instantaneously,” said Charles. “When I spoke to Harish, he assured me of a pleasant stay and services. He also promised to manage our cab bookings to and fro from the location. I deposited a total amount of Rs 11,400 (for three people including GST 18%) through Google Pay,” he added. .
However, Charles and his friends weren’t aware of what lay ahead of them. The next day, when they were all set to go for the trip and were waiting for the cab, Harish Parmer called to say that the routes were waterlogged and there are some “lodging issues”. He told them they could cancel the trip and that he would refund the entire amount. The friends agreed to do so.
But, as it turned out, they never got their money back. “We waited for the payment for three days but he kept delaying it. And, when I checked the reviews online, it turned out he had similarly scammed other people as well,” said Charles, who filed a police complaint against Harish on 27 August 2020.
In 2019, Maharashtra reported 2,908 cases of cybercrime, about 10 cases of cybercrime per day. However, during the lockdown, the number of online government-related and banking related frauds have drastically increased. Government related frauds include those where fraudsters impersonate as government servants.
In April this year, 200 cases were reported while 150 cases were reported in just 13 days of May 2020.
“In Borivali, we receive 4-5 cases related to online scamming every day,” said a police officer at MHB Police Station, Borivali. He requested to remain unnamed. “Some cases aren’t reported if the amount lost is smaller,” he added. Before the pandemic, around 7-10 cases were reported in a week.
A 42-year-old shopkeeper in Borivali was also a victim of online fraud. The man saw an ad for a small printer for Rs 1300 on Facebook and ordered it on 17 June 2020. He made the payment through RazorPay, an e-wallet. However, the product wasn’t delivered when promised. When he checked online about the dealer and his company PGC Media Pvt Ltd., there wasn’t any contact number or address. When he mailed them on their customer care email address, he never got a reply. Since it wasn’t a big amount, he didn’t take any legal action.
“Everything has become digital since the lockdown began which has led to a rise in cases. With ease in restrictions, most frauds are anti-phishing frauds,” added the officer in Borivali station.
Lockdown and online scams
During the lockdown Indians spent four hours daily on the internet. mainly on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. That is an 87 % increase in internet usage as compared to the pre-lockdown phase. Online scammers leverage technology not only to mask their identity but also to play on people’s emotions and behaviors.
Add to it, lockdown presented a different set of challenges: increase in unemployment, decrease in cash on delivery payment methods and the virus compelled ‘no contact’ delivery.
“They exploit people’s anxiety, desperation and ability to make irrational decisions under the influence of emotions,” said Shubham Singh, a cyber crime expert in Mumbai, talking about online scammers. “For example, an email from an ‘authority’ can induce fear. An opportunity to make a quick buck can provide relief to job seekers and those unemployed” he added.
Further, it is extremely easy to convince victims as criminals now have well designed websites, real-sounding company addresses and identity proofs that look authentic. “Another problem owing to the lockdown is that police can’t go inter-state to catch these culprits. They can be anywhere from Rajasthan to Uttar Pradesh to Karnataka,” said Singh.
During the lockdown, certain kinds of frauds have become common. First one is Investment-related frauds, wherein the opportunity to gain money quickly by investing in bitcoin, trading companies etc, entrap people. Second, social media shopping frauds – goods are offered at cheap rates on social media accounts where people spend a lot of their time. Third is employment fraud, wherein job opportunities are promised with MNCs, an ‘offer letter’ is given in exchange for an amount of money to get a job. Lastly, memberships of OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon prime video at cheap rates.“Some hackers only require CVV numbers. There are middle interferences which don’t require OTP. As soon as you enter your CVV number, they get into your bank account,” said Singh. There were a lot of frauds reported when alcohol delivery started as well.
Be aware of scams
To combat any issue, awareness is the first and crucial step to prevent it. The more aware we are, the less vulnerable we become.
Michelle Croix, a resident of Borivali, shares her experience on how identifying the ‘scam’, helped her to avoid it. “I had to sell a bed and I posted about it online. A man named Arun showed interest and decided to make a bank transfer. Since I don’t use GooglePay or PayTM, I asked him to transfer it through netbanking to one of my family members’ accounts,” Croix said. “He then called and enquired whether Re1 was reflecting in the account and when the family member said no, he offered to pay in vouchers for which a barcode was needed to be scanned,” she said.
Luckily Croix and her family members smelled something fishy and shared the incident with a friend, who showed them how vouchers are used for scamming. “After we refused to scan it and tried calling him back, he stopped answering,” said Croix.
What to do if you have been scammed
Research shows people are often shy of complaining because of stigma that they can be easily fooled. And if the amount is smaller, people don’t want to go through the hassle of legal mechanisms. “We often receive complaints late. It is only four -five days after the crime has been committed. If people complain immediately, it is easy to track the culprit,” said the police officer at MHB Police Station.
If you have been the victim of the crime, then immediately call your bank and freeze your account. File a dispute form. Then you can login the complaint online (https://cybercrime.gov.in/) or go to the nearest police station to file a complaint. In addition to that, inform digital wallet platforms like Google Pay or PAYTM if you used that to transfer the money. They can then block the relevant accounts. Also, report the culprit’s FB/Instagram/Twitter or any other social media profile.
In order to protect oneself from being duped by cyber criminals, here are some do’s and don’ts you should be aware of:
- Never share your card expiry date, CVV, ATM passwords and OTP.
- It is easy for cyber criminals to send convincing emails which appear to be from your bank. Don’t click on the links provided in such emails even if they look genuine. They could lead you to malicious websites
- Keep your bank’s customer care number handy so that you can report any suspicious or unauthorized transactions on your account immediately.
- Fraudsters may call your family members posing as hospital staff and may request for money transfer saying that you have met with an accident and you are in urgent need of money. Before entertaining such a request, contact your family member to confirm their whereabouts.
- Always ignore an advertisement if it claims that you can earn money with little to no work. These offers seem too good to be true.
- Always use familiar websites for online shopping rather than shopping by searching products on search engines. Search results can be misleading and may lead to malicious websites. Read reviews of the website and the company. Generally, if they are fraudulent, there will be negative reviews.
- Avoid using third-party extensions, plugins or add-ons for your web browser as it may secretly track your activity and steal your personal details.
- Always type the information in online forms and do not use the auto-fill option on your web-browser to fill your online forms as they may store your personal information such as card number, CVV number, bank account number etc.
- Stay up to date with news regarding fraud and identity theft. If you are aware of the scam going around you will be significantly less likely to fall victim to the scammer’s intent.