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?
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.