Beware of COVID Scams, Fraud, Profiteering and Corruption
The coronavirus has unleashed the biggest pandemic any of us have seen in our lifetime. While the world of medicine and science is working overtime to contain the virus and to find a cure, are we prepared for the pandemic of fraud and corruption that thrives during disasters by preying on people’s misfortune and anxieties?
 
The developed world is already used to criminals capitalising on calamities; but although these are extensively documented and acted upon, each new disaster throws up thousands of new victims. 
 
It is no different in India, where corruption is already very high. But a majority of Indians will struggle to keep up with the ingenuity and sophistication of online fraud and its spread through friendly social media forwards. Heightened anxiety levels due to the unprecedented lock-down, has created a fertile environment for fraudsters to play on people’s fears. 
 
Fake news and sensational videos claiming to provide COVID-related information, emails pretending to offer official warnings and notifications, messages seeking donations to fake entities or selling cheap COVID insurance are used to steal money or plant malware to allow criminals to access to your passwords and financial information. One of these offered a free Netflix subscription for the entire lock-down period to those who filled out a survey that was attached and forwarded it to 10 WhatsApp users. Offline cons include sale of dubious cleaners, tests and remedies for COVID-19 and, in the US, even an advance booking on a ‘soon-to-be launched’ COVID vaccine! 
 
 
Unthinking social media forwards allow these scams to go viral in record time before being exposed. But bigger than any of these is the massive financial fraud, government corruption and misuse of State machinery that is unleashed during major calamities. 
 
In almost every country, senior citizens and those unfamiliar with online transactions are most vulnerable, especially at a time when their income from savings is sharply reduced due to the drop in interest rates and they are worried about whether they have adequate insurance to cover eventualities. 
 
Poor and less literate Indians are equally susceptible, because they aggressively adopted digital technology but remain fuzzy about financial risks. Those with bank accounts linked to mobiles and Aadhaar numbers are easier targets and, hence, need to be extra mindful. 
 
Fraudsters invariably play on fear, greed, gullibility or carelessness. Here's a quick look at some tricks being used by COVID scammers. 
 
The Postman Brings Cash from Banks 
Only yesterday, a well-known consumer group helpfully forwarded a message claiming that the postal department had ‘introduced a new service called AEPS transaction’ allowing a withdrawal of up to Rs10,000 from your savings account via the postman without going to the bank. This ‘service’ was offered to people with an Aadhaar number linked to their mobile phone and bank account and could be availed by sending a message with details to a particular mobile number. 
 
An activist lawyer checked and found that it belonged to someone from Gujarat. Those forwarding the message failed to note that post-offices are not even delivering letters during the lock-down. 
 
The good news is that Indian banks and companies have worked hard to catch new tricks and warn customers through emails, text messages and press releases. Hopefully, it will contain some of the damage. 
 
 
Cancellation Con: First off the ground in India were phishing emails targeting those wanting to cancel travel bookings after the lock-down. MakeMyTrip, Cleartrip and Goibibo quickly alerted people about attempts to entice them into sharing bank details and personal information with criminals to obtain a refund against cancelled bookings. One is lulled into forgetting the standard practice is for refunds to be made to the original source of payment, whether it is credit/debit card, e-wallet or bank account whose details are already available with the seller. 
 
PM Cares Donations: Yogesh Sapkale has already written about refund frauds and attempts to skim donations through fake UPI (unified payments interface) handle which were very similar to [email protected], the official handle for donations to PM-CARES (prime minister's citizen assistance and relief in emergency situations) Fund. 
 
Another scam is in the form of calls and messages offering to deposit funds into your bank account as a part of the government’s COVID relief schemes, which ask for personal and bank details. These are bound to ensnare people who have lost jobs or their livelihoods.
 
 
Postponing EMI: Banks have warned customers to be extremely mindful about email, SMS and IVR calls offering help to defer EMI (equated monthly instalments) payments by activating the temporary moratorium announced by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The goal is to access banking details, email logins and passwords, or lure victims into sharing an OTP (one time password) received on their phones and skim money from their accounts. 
 
Online Classifieds Scam: Even before the COVID lock-down, there was a sharp spike in attempts to scam people who sought to sell products through online on sites such as OLX and Quickr. The ease of UPI (unified payments interface) transactions makes it attractive for cheats. After lulling victims with a tiny test transaction, they are able to steal money through UPI instead of making the promised payments. Banks are sending repeated warnings about how a “UPI/Debit Card PIN is generated ONLY to make payments & NOT to receive payments.” Do people pay attention to such messages?
 
Corruption Pandemic
Writing in The Hill, Jeff Cortese, formerly with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Public Corruption Unit, warns of the ‘corruption pandemic’ that will be triggered by COVID-19. The need for fast action during emergencies creates massive opportunities for corruption by government officials, contractors and suppliers. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, over $1 billion were improperly distributed or fraudulently obtained in one city alone. The difference is that the US charged over 1,100 people with fraud by 2011. This is unlikely to happen in India.
 
We have already seen this in how medical safety equipment, ventilators, testing kits and even sanitisers, that are essential to medical workers and doctors, have turned scarce and expensive. Gross mismanagement of procurement and attempts to centralise purchase and supplies are only increasing the scarcity. 
 
There is growing evidence of gross abuse of power by bureaucrats, politicians and the police during the lock-down. A few days ago, an engineer was badly beaten up at the bungalow of Maharashtra minister Jitendra Awhad in Mumbai. Those responsible were arrested; but the fact that the beating happened at the minister’s bungalow seems to be ignored. 
 
On Thursday night, it was revealed on social media that Amitabh Gupta, a principal secretary of the home department issued travel pass to ‘family friends’ the Wadhwan family to travel from Khandala to Mahabaleshwar in the middle of the lock-down. These discredited promoters of the failed Dewan Housing Finance Ltd (DHFL) are out on bail and being investigated for underworld links and gigantic fraud that shook up the financial system. 
 
Mr Gupta, the IPS officer, has been sent on compulsory leave after being caught; but this seems an eyewash, since he ought to have been suspended under government rules, says IAS officer Ashok Khemka. 
 
These are just small glimpses of the gumption and brazenness of those in power, who thrive in an unprecedented situation when people’s freedom is curtailed for their own protection. Such abuse of power is probably multiplied a million times in a country of 134 crore people which still operates in a feudal manner. We may know the extent of it only after the war against the coronavirus is finally over. 
 
 

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    COMMENTS

    dbdesai4

    8 months ago

    A local newspaper in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra has published a news today that the District Head Post Office has announced such scheme in the district.

    m.prabhu.shankar

    8 months ago

    Thanks for the article Sir.

    ganeshjohnson

    8 months ago

    Maybe smart readers of your column can take the letter, photoshop the names and vehicle numbers of their own, and proceed to Mahabaleshwar for some cool relaxation!

    drbheda

    8 months ago

    nice & timely write up hope people remain vigilant.

    War against virus: The new nightingales of India, lighting the lamp of hope
    As thousands of nurses across the country light the lamps of hope in the hospitals, several leading ladies play a vital role in India's war room to contain the spread of dreaded pandemic.
     
    From developing India's first test kit for COVID-19, to despatching life saving medicines in remote areas, and from chalking out strategies for the government to tackle the spread of the virus to building treatment protocols, women from various walks of life burn midnight oil to counter the virus which is gradually spreading in world's second most populated country.
     
    Just a day before she delivered a baby, Minal Dakhave Bhosale, a Pune based virologist, managed to deliver the first testing kit for COVID-19 to India. In just a record time of six weeks, Minal and her team including some of the best scientists gifted its first test kit to conduct COVID-19 tests at a large scale in the country, an exercise required to identify and isolate carriers of the dreaded virus.
     
    A few kilometers away from Minal's laboratory in Pune, another virologist, Dr Priya Abraham, made an important breakthrough by isolating the virus. This breakthrough, by Dr Abraham, Director of the National Viral Institute, helps the scientists and immunologists in developing a vaccine or a drug for the treatment for new coronavirus.
     
    Around 1500 kilometers away from Pune, in India's seat of power, New Delhi, several women bureaucrats, policy makers, health strategists, joined hands with the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in chalking out strategies and initiating quick steps to prevent the country from slipping into stage 3, where disease is transmitted into communities.
     
    Preeti Sudan, an alumni of London School of Economics, and presently the Secretary of Union Ministry of Health and Welfare, became the nodal point for the PMO to execute the key medical strategies on ground through health departments of various states." 
     
    Preeti is a workaholic. Fortunately she has rich experience of public food distribution, disaster management and PM's mega health Insurance scheme. She seems to be the fittest person to be the nodal point for coordinating the war against a pandemic, " says a 1983 batch IAS and batchmate of Preeti Sudan.
     
    Incidentally, the person in charge of viral diseases in India's premiere medical body, Indian Council of Medical Research(ICMR), happens to be a well known woman scientist, Dr Nivedita Gupta. Her contribution in containment of virus Nipah in India's southern most state of Kerala is widely acknowledged in the research fraternity.
     
    Dr Gupta, who played a key role in setting up a viral and diagnostic network for ICMR, is presently building testing and treatment protocols in India. Such protocols, adhered by the medical practitioners are vital in the fight against the virus.
     
    The actual battle against COVID-19 could be won only through a repurposed drug or a vaccine, a field which usually comes under biotechnology ministry. As several groups of scientists launch the project of developing repurpose drugs or a vaccine to combat the virus, Renu Swaroop, a top class scientist and secretary in the Union Ministry of Biotechnology, looks after all these projects.
     
    She hopes that repurpose drugs could be an answer to quickly deal with the highly infectious virus.Seeing her deep involvement in the going projects, the union government has given Renu Swaroop one year extension in her service.
     
    While these scientists and bureaucrats hold the key in fighting the pandemic, thousands of nurses, who form the frontline of the battle, work tirelessly in hundreds of hospitals where patients are being treated.
     
    "We are thankful to Prime Minister Modi. For the first time we were invited in a video conference with the PM and I am happy to say all our requests ranging from suitable insurance package to availability of Personal Protection Equipments (PPEs) were heard and sorted out, " said Professor Roy George, the President of The Trained Nurses Association of India (TNAI) the apex body of nurses founded in 1908.
     
    India has over 1.2 million workforce of trained nurses, who seem to brave this highly contagious virus and redefine women empowerment as the country gears up to battle coronavirus.
     
    Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.
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    Bombay HC Asks Govt To Ensure Relief Reaches All Migrants, Homeless People
    The Bombay High Court has asked several authorities to ensure that the relief is provided to the last person in need, including migrants and homeless people. Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), like Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan have filed many public interest litigations (PILs) on the HC. 
     
    In the order, Justice AA Sayed, says, "In my view, the first and foremost endeavour of the state government must be that no victims go hungry and the food/food-grains reach all victims (even in remote areas), and drinking water, medicines, healthcare and hygienic toilette facilities are provided to them."
     
    The HC also asked District Legal Services Authorities to coordinate the implementation of the plan of action prepared by the Disaster Management Authorities and supervise the transferring victims of disaster to shelters and the distribution of food, drinking water, medicines and healthcare, to such victims.
     
    In the PIL, Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan has highlighted the issues of redressal of grievances of migrant labourers in Maharashtra following the 21-day lock-down declared by the Indian government after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the subsequent restrictions placed on their movement.
     
    During the hearing, the assistant government pleader (AGP) informed the bench that the state government has set up 4,871 relief or shelter camps and about 0.75 million migrant labourers have been accommodated and are being provided three meals a day. He submitted that a common help-line has been provided in each district. He further submitted that 5kgs food grain per person has been provided free of cost under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana. He also submitted that various advisories have been issued by the Central and the state government which are being followed by the authorities.
     
    Senior counsel Gayatri Singh, appearing for the petitioners, contended that though various advisories have been issued by the Central and state government and there are several schemes in place, there is no implementation of the same by the state authorities and the benefits are not reaching the migrant labourers and homeless persons. She submitted that there is no proper response to the help-lines and there are several areas where there is no water, food, medicines and healthcare, and toilet facilities made available. 
     
    However, the AGP disputes the contention.
     
    Justice Sayed said the issues raised in the PILs are essentially about the implementation of the various advisories and schemes of the Central and state government and the benefits being made available to all the migrants and the marginalised sections of the community. 
     
    "Undoubtedly, the state government is facing an uphill task in the present scenario of COVID-19 pandemic and the provisions of the disaster management Act being invoked. There is a scheme in place for victims of disasters through the legal services authorities to ensure immediate help to the victims of disaster by government and non-government agencies. Under the said scheme, the State Legal Services Authorities are required to coordinate the implementation of the plan of action prepared by the Disaster Management Authorities and supervise the transferring victims of disaster to shelters and the distribution of food, drinking water, medicines and healthcare, to such victims. Since it is the grievance of the petitioners that the benefits of the advisories and schemes of the Central and state government are not reaching all the victims, in my view, the District Legal Services Authorities can play an effective role by co-ordinating the activities of the state government authorities," the Court observed.
     
    The HC then asked the petitioners to make representation by email to district collectors with a copy ot the district legal services authority. The Authority will then take up the issues with the authorities and submit a report the Court during next hearing. The Court also asked state government to file an affidavit in reply to the PILs.
     
    The next hearing on this matter is scheduled on 15 April 2020.
     
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