Mumbai: Fraudsters lurking on social media, beware of the great Covid rip-off | Mumbai News | #socialmedia


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When social media morphed into a Covid-19 war room in the last few weeks with people trying to crowdsource oxygen, plasma and life-saving drugs, fraudsters skulking in the digital shadows latched on to prey on people’s desperation.
The modus operandi is similar to the liquor delivery and fake e-tailer scams operating through social media platforms where fraudsters float their phone numbers in the name of known shops. When people call, they’re asked to make an advance payment, online. And that is where the trap lies. Once the payment is made, the scamsters switch off their phones and promptly disappear.
Only this time it’s not a fake wine-and-dine bluff but a rip off that could cost a human life. Kanika Saxena from Mumbai, who was fleeced of Rs 18,000 by a certain ‘Ajay Agarwal’ posing as a distributor of a leading pharmaceutical company, calls these scamsters the lowest scum of the earth. “I was desperately trying to source six Remdesivir injections for a critically ill friend in Gurgaon so I didn’t think twice when asked to pay in advance only to find out after 12 hours of trying to reach him that I’d been cheated. The patient passed away in the next three days and I haven’t been able to shake off the feeling that I could have been responsible for delaying treatment,” says Saxena.
Kunal Chopra from Gurgaon, who lost Rs 15,000, says medical emergencies leave you especially vulnerable. “When I stumbled upon a forward about injections for my father-in-law, I didn’t think about paying up in advance to that so-called pharmacy,” he says.
Although both Saxena and Chopra flagged the numbers on social media, neither filed a police complaint. “Saving the patient and pursuing other leads for medication was more important than lodging an FIR or going after the conman,” reasoned Chopra.
Harish Baijal, DIG, Cyber Security Maharashtra Police, says uncertainty and distress have forced people to let down their guards. “While we’re trying to spread awareness, it’s difficult to keep a tab on the dissemination of information on social media,” said Baijal.
“These scams are an outcome of the shortage of infrastructure and official resources. If we had more organised ways of collating and verifying information and aid being processed, we could reduce instances of blackmarketing or fraud,” said Dr Anant Bhan, an expert on bioethics suggesting that the “groups promoting or facilitating such calls, invest some time in screening them for more accountability”.
Sugandh Rakha, a product manager who has built an online portal for Covid-19 resources in Hyderabad, was one of the first to sound an alarm when he stumbled upon complaints that many had been cheated by the numbers listed. “I took off from work to dial around 200 numbers in one day and outsourced a few to two students volunteering to investigate how the scam works,” he said.
Rakha’s findings elucidate how scamsters use social media to lay traps disguised as helpful posts, further legitimised when resource portals and celebrities unknowingly repost them. “These numbers are often marked as ‘verified’ although one may have only checked if the number rings or if the person receiving the call claimed that he had the medicine. When desperate relatives of patients find these numbers and contact them, the scammers charge any random amount,” explains Rakha who has seen 22 frauds till now. “For instance, Remdesivir which is priced between Rs 2,000-3,500 is being sold for Rs 10,000-50,000 a vial. If a family is lucky, they get what they paid for. Otherwise, the scammers will say it’s out of stock and then switch off their cell phones for good.”
To weed out the dubious ones, Rachit Mathur in Gurgaon, who runs a gig workforce platform, has re-assigned 35 members of his on-demand staff to provide real-time verified information on ‘We Will Win’, a platform to match requests for beds, oxygen, concentrators and medicines with availability.
“We conduct a two-step authentication process. First, we call the number to verify stock, price and availability. If they claim to be a company representative, we ask for an official email address, bank account details and for pictures of the stock with date stamps. If we see that it’s a personal bank account or the city from which the call has originated does not match the city where the bank account exists, or that the company has no social media or offline presence, we flag them as fake,” says Mathur.

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