The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit India’s health infrastructure extremely hard, leading to a shortage of oxygen and life-saving medicines. Even as the government, corporates, NGOs, and people scrambled to help, numerous fraudsters emerged from the woodworks.
These people promised to deliver hard-to-get medicines and oxygen cylinders, and most often than not disappeared with the money. By targeting patients in distant states, they usually evaded the risk of being caught as the police is currently busy with the COVID crisis and do have resources to track criminals outside their jurisdiction. Very often, the victims were often unable to go to the police station in the present situation to lodge a complaint.
To fight the increasing number of pandemic-related scams, Ramanuj Mukherjee, a lawyer-turned-edtech entrepreneur, started a pro-bono legal platform, Lawyers Against COVIFRAUD, to help identify miscreants taking advantage of the situation to cheat hapless patients.
Ramanuj Mukherjee, a lawyer-turned-edtech entrepreneur, initiated a pro-bono legal platform, Lawyers Against COVIFRAUD, to help miscreants taking advantage of the situation to cheat hapless patients.
“Around three weeks back I had finished my day’s work. It was late at night when I opened my social media to see what’s going on. My feed was flooded with posts about scams around supplying oxygen and life-saving medicines. I felt lawyers could play a role here. I put a post on my social media, inviting people to collaborate with me to set up a legal cell,” Ramanuj Mukherjee tells SocialStory.
“I got an overwhelming response from my network and the next day we opened a WhatsApp group for coordination,” he adds.
So far, over 140 lawyers from almost every state in India have joined the initiative, and started taking legal action against scammers who take advantage of helpless COVID-19 patients and their families.
Lawyers against COVIFRAUD
The platform is solving the problem by identifying the bank account where the money was received and filing police complaints in those jurisdictions, with the help of their distributed lawyers network.
According to Ramanuj, the most common problem is where someone is promised an oxygen cylinder or lifesaving medicine, and took an advance without delivering anything.
“A single scammer can do this to many people throughout the day. There are also many black marketeers who are trying to sell these essentials at 20x-30x price, taking advantage of people’s helplessness,” he says.
Anyone who faced such a crime and is willing to report the same to the police can reach out to the team over email or WhatsApp. The team can assist them to register a complaint if they can furnish details such as a screenshot of the conversation, transaction details etc,
“Some people come to us with medical negligence cases or where they feel they were overcharged (sometimes it’s not clear to us whether it is black marketing or justified inflation given higher demand of products) for something as well. We are not equipped to take these cases and we try to refer them to lawyers who may be interested to pursue such matters,” he says.
How they are helping
Lawyers against COVIDFRAUD has so far received about 15 complaints where victims are willing to register a complaint. They have registered 12 complaints till now.
The total number of lawyers and law students in the group right now is over 140. Some of them help draft complaints and documents while others call up scammers and do basic due diligence as far as possible. A group visits police stations while some of them reach out to National Payment Corporation of India or RBI, to reverse fraudulent transactions.
“One group also amplifies the message on social media so we can find lawyers in remote districts where we don’t have members but cases are coming up,” Ramanuj says. He adds that so far the only cost involved is that of hiring a coordinator, which LawSikho, a reputed online legal education company, is sponsoring.
“One of my colleagues, Heena Joshi, from LawSikho, was a part of this project already. We asked her to work on this project full time for the time being. Her endless energy and effort to connect with all lawyers have breathed life into this project,” he says.
All other lawyers are working pro bono on this project. They are not only offering their time, but have also been bearing basic costs like conveyance, cost of sending registered post as per CrPC, etc.
Challenges and the way forward
Sometimes, it is difficult to find lawyers who will volunteer to go to a certain police station in remote places. Ramanuj adds that some of the lawyers who go to the police stations face resistance from the cops.
“These complaints can increase work for police, so they try to avoid giving acknowledgement for registering a complaint, or insist on the presence of the victim, which is unrealistic because the victim may be suffering from COVID or living in a different state,” he says.
He adds that they demand that the police take action against the scammer, and at least freeze their bank account and phone numbers “so they can’t go on defrauding more people”. “The scammer should then be arrested; this will be a deterrent factor. Quick police action can save lives and ease pressure on the already strained healthcare system.”
In a silver lining, the team says they have already noticed a dip in the number of complaints from some cities. “Scammers will back off when they realise that they will be tracked and complaints will be registered.”
Talking about the road ahead, Ramanuj says, “I want to expand future activities to other kind of cyber scams if other lawyers on the platform agree to this. It is by creating a pan-India task force that we can fight back against all kinds of phishing scams and other organised cybercrimes that target common and vulnerable people. The next billion Indians coming on the magical world of the internet need that protection.”