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Lockdown leads to decline in crime, but sharp hike in online fraud

PUBLISHED ON APR 18, 2020 09:47 PM IST

When the National Crime Records Bureau puts together statistics pertaining to crime in India in 2020, they will show a sharp decline in crimes like burglaries, robberies, chain and mobile phone snatching, carjacking, pickpocketing, etc. during the lockdown period, but a steep spike in online fraud.

Obviously, with people locked up inside their homes and no movement on the streets, thieves have little opportunity to pursue their trade, but online fraudsters have become extra active and are finding new ways of cheating consumers of their hard-earned money.

A Gurugram resident—a senior citizen—who lives alone and pays all her utility and credit card bills by cheque, says she constantly received calls from her telecom service provider about the non-payment of her bill. She also got messages asking her not to drop the cheque in a dropbox, but to pay online. She had no idea how to pay online and was worried that her only link to the outside world—her cellphone—might be cut off. So when she got a call reminding her about the non-payment of her cellphone bill and offering to help her make the payment online, she was quite glad and readily provided all credit card details necessary for executing the payment.

She realised that she had been duped when she got a message showing a spend of 10,000 on her credit card and continued to get reminders from her cellphone operator about non-payment of the bill.

There have also been complaints of such fraudulent calls from people claiming to be from power supply undertakings, offering consumers assistance in paying bills online, through a link specially created for easy payments. While some have fallen prey to such scams, many have escaped by exercising caution.

Fraudsters mainly play on consumers’ anxieties related to the lockdown and the virus. There are thus offers of ‘guaranteed’ cures for Covid-19. There are fraudulent calls claiming to be from a bank or a credit card company, offering short-term loans on attractive rates of interest or re-scheduling of existing equated monthly instalments. The calls invariably end with the extraction of bank account details or credit card details.

There are also hoax calls, selling airline tickets for a future date at throwaway prices and insurance policies covering coronavirus treatments at a very nominal rate. There are phoney offers of work from home, refunds of cancelled tickets or hotel stays, sale of groceries at throwaway prices—the list is long. I have also heard of e-mails from a ‘relative’ or a ‘friend’ said to be down with Covid-19 and needing money urgently for treatment. Another trick is to promise, through e-mails, a huge cash prize if you answer questions pertaining to Covid-19.

In all of them, the attempt is to withdraw money from consumers’ bank accounts or mobile wallets or credit cards through vishing or links sent through text messages or e-mails.

A friend told me that she got two calls from someone claiming to be from her telecom service provider, offering to help her get a better and cheaper tariff plan. The first time she got the call, she said she was not interested. The second time, she fell for it and agreed to have the plan changed. However, when she was told that she had to confirm her identity and was asked for her date of birth, alarm bells rang and she disconnected.

These are difficult times and consumers must exercise utmost caution, whether answering a call, an email or a text message. Utilities and banks have been warning consumers that they never ask for their bank/credit card details, date of birth or OTP number. This is a warning that consumers must remember at all times.

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