Even as the country is battling the deadly second wave and the accompanying shortage of resources, we are witnessing a parallel wave of conmen, black marketers, counterfeiters, and harassers. In fact, educated and smart people are also falling for such scamsters who are taking advantage of the desperate needs and situation of the patient.
Given the deluge of COVID cases and shortage of resources, social media platforms (Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook) have become the go-to places for people who are hunting for COVID resources - oxygen (O2) cylinders, lifesaving medicines like Remdesivir, Fabiflu, and Tocilizumab, ventilators beds, O2 beds and normal beds in hospitals.
Rampant Black Marketing
Many desperate relatives of the patient, who are in urgent need of oxygen cylinders, concentrators, essential COVID medicines and even hospital beds, are willing to buy these things from the black market at exorbitant prices. This, however, has brought out many fly-by-night operators who disappear after taking huge amounts as advance payment or deliver fake oxygen cylinders and dubious medicines.
By targeting patients in far-away states, the scamsters generally evade the risk of being caught as the police is currently occupied in handling the COVID crisis and does not have resources to track these criminals, who are outside their jurisdiction. The victims too are often unable to go to the police station to lodge a complaint in these times.
Between 29th April and 5 May 2021, a person going by the name of Sachin Aggarwal has defrauded over 30 people in Delhi, who were looking for oxygen cylinders. Out of these, 24 have disclosed on Twitter about how much they lost to the fraud. The amount comes to a stunning Rs4.65 lakh.
In his conversations with his victims, Sachin claimed he worked at Durga Oxygen Gas Depot at Shahdara and would deliver the O2 cylinders to their home. When the victims later visited the address, the shop was shut. In all the cases, he gave the victim one phone number to call and multiple other numbers for UPI payments.
Monika Bharadwaj, deputy commissioner of police, crime branch, Delhi said, they are trying to establish if Sachin was one person using multiple numbers or an inter-state gang using one name. “The locations of all the numbers we have traced are outside Delhi. Eight numbers have been located in Bihar, and a few more in Jharkhand, Mumbai, Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.”
She said the police have received over 50 complaints of this modus operandi of oxygen cylinders fraud and Sachin Agarwal’s name featured in most of them.
The situation that made it easier for such scamsters to thrive
Over the past few weeks, as COVID cases rose in Delhi and oxygen began to run out, many people started volunteering on Twitter to help co-ordinate supply of O2 cylinders. Initially vendors would confirm if the cylinder was available, then give their address, ask the patient’s family to pick up the cylinder, accept payment there and hand over the cylinder.
The situation changed on 27th April when the Delhi High Court ordered the State
government to find establishments selling oxygen or drugs in black market. This is when the problems started. As the police started heavily cracking down on shops selling oxygen cylinders and desperate patients began looting shops; vendors became hesitant to share their address. Instead, they started delivering O2 cylinders at home and for their own assurance they would ask for an advance payment. This, however, made it harder for volunteers to verify oxygen leads and easier for the scamsters to thrive.
Delhi police launched Operation CyberPrahaar and has so far registered around 400 first information reports (FIRs) against COVID scam and arrested over 90 people. Scamsters were found to be from different parts of the country.
“We seized 214 frozen bank accounts with cheated amount of over Rs60 lakh. We have also taken a step to block around 900 mobile phone numbers,” said special commissioner of police (CP) Neeraj Thakur while speaking with media on 11th May.
Red FM has started a campaign called #AbDilliBolegi to encourage people who have been similarly conned to share their experiences so as to create an awareness among people about the different types of COVID scams
Bengaluru police, who also received similar complaints of an oxygen scam, have now shared an alert to warn people of such scams.
Fake medicines scam
The Delhi police raided a ‘pharmaceutical’ unit in Uttarakhand few days ago and found it was manufacturing fake ‘Remdesivir’ injection by name COVIPRI. The police seized 196 injections, 3,000 packing materials. The accused revealed that they had already sold about 2,000 packets.
No Remdesvir by the name Covipri exists. Please do not buy from unverified sources. It may turn out more harmful to the patient.
Harassers and Spammers
Unfortunately, even at a time like this, there are special kinds of monsters out there who are using these desperate times as opportunities to scam people, make money, or worse still harass women with indecent messages.
One lady who had put out an emergency request seeking O2 cylinder for her father was inundated with vulgar pictures, calls and messages such as “Are you single?”, “Your DP is so nice”, “Where do you live?”, “Do you live alone?”, “Are you single?”, “Will you speak to me?”, “What is your full name?”. One man even made kissing sounds on the call.
Similarly, Shasvathi Siva was going through a family medical emergency and had put out a request for plasma donors but nothing could have prepared her for the unmitigated harassment and trauma she had to face from random anonymous lecherous men
. She requested everyone to pull down the tweets and Instagram stories that carried her number. She advises women to never share their phone numbers on a public forum.
In an attempt to fight the surging cases of pandemic related scams, Ramanuj Mukherjee, a lawyer has initiated a pro-bono legal platform, ‘Lawyers Against Covifrauds’
for lawyers to come together and help cheated hapless patients. Those who have been cheated can approach the members of the group on social media, or email at [email protected]
and the volunteers help register police complaints at the appropriate police stations. In case the police don't take action then the matter is escalated to the SP and the Magistrate.
All such work is done by evangelical law students and lawyers on a pro bono basis. ‘Lawyers against Covifrauds’ is solving this 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.
How to avoid getting cheated and what to do if you get scammed
1) Procure COVID medicines from registered sources /online marketplace that pays the sellers after delivery of the goods. Customers also have the option to return and get a refund.
2) Do not make advance payment without a price quote which bears CIN/ TIN/ GST number, name, and address of the business
4) If you have to go with a small seller, insist on payment on delivery and picking it up instead of opting for home delivery. Times are tough and we may not have the time, but but there are many volunteers who might be willing to help.
5) If you have to pay online, get details of the office – address, phone number. Ask for a proper proforma invoice or estimate to be mailed to you. Note the bank account to which you have been asked to transfer to. A major red flag is if the accounts (for tranche wise payments) are in the names of random people located across different states then it is a scam.
6) Report malpractices and scams on the social media handles of respective city police, cybercrime cells, cybercrime.gov.in or 155260. Please file an FIR because the police can start investigation only after that. As soon as an FIR is registered, the police try to block the number and bank account of the fraudster.
7) After you realise that you have been scammed, immediately raise a complaint with your bank requesting them to freeze or reverse that transaction. In some cases, the banks might be able to help but it is important to raise an official complaint immediately.
8) Volunteering during this COVID crisis means calling hundreds of random numbers every day to verify sources and check availability, which leads to your numbers being shared with dozens of strangers daily. Try to avoid using your regular number and keep a separate number earmarked for such calls or messages.
You can check and authenticate the number of the supplier you are dealing with in a COVID Scam Directory portal
called cov.social that has been set up by Abhishek Upperwal. You can also report the phone numbers, account details and UPI IDs that are potentially fraudulent or if you have already been scammed so that others get alerted and saved from similar fraudsters.
Now, as the pandemic era rounds the bend into a vaccine distribution phase, there are reports emerging of a new onslaught of fake messages pushing fake vaccines or services phishing for bank accounts, UPI or e-wallets or requiring people to pay in order to schedule vaccination appointments.
Be alert. Be safe.