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Fraudsters con people as pleas for help pour in on social media

New Delhi: Rashmi Mehra, a public health professional, came across a phone number in a WhatsApp group on April 24
By Sadia Akhtar
PUBLISHED ON APR 29, 2021 01:02 AM IST

New Delhi: Rashmi Mehra, a public health professional, came across a phone number in a WhatsApp group on April 24. She had received the number from another acquaintance who had spotted the message on Twitter. The tweet read: “Oxygen cylinders available for all. Contact number- (mentioned number) (Dheeraj) Location: Delhi (Rohini). ‘Available, Just Spoke on call’ (sic)”

Mehra passed on the number to her friend, whose father, along with other family members, are down with Covid-19. With the oxygen saturation levels of her friend’s grandmother dipping, oxygen was the need of the hour.

“My friend needed an oxygen cylinder for her grandmother. On her behalf, I found a lead. Even though he was charging a lot, we settled for him. In a state of distress, my friend made an advance payment of 10,000 as sought by the vendor. He was not reachable after she made the payment in the noon. By evening, even our messages were not getting delivered,” said Mehra.

She said the family is still battling Covid. “My friend’s family members are battling for life right now. In such a situation, filing a complaint is the last thing on her mind,” said Mehra.

Mehra’s friend is among the scores of people who are getting scammed as they desperately seek help amid the ongoing crisis. The second wave of Covid-19 across the county – and the fourth in Delhi— has spelt doom with a record number of people testing positive for the virus daily and at least 300 people dying of the infection in the Capital everyday over the past few days.

Amid this unprecedented surge in cases, social media platforms are flooded with desperate pleas for help to find vacant hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, and medicines such as remdesivir. While there are many citizens who have stepped up to help, some fraudsters are exploiting the situation and cashing in on people’s misery in these trying times.

Outlining the gravity of the situation, Mehra said her friend was a doctor but had failed to secure a bed for her own family members. Driven by the helplessness of the situation, she was compelled to make the transaction. “I know someone who lost 30,000 she had paid for a vial of remdesivir. The vendor blocked the number soon after receiving the payment. In a normal situation, one would think before making any payment. But the crisis is so bad that one is left with no choice but to take decisions fraught with great risk,” she said.

Harish Arunachalam, who works with a multi-national technology company in Dublin, paid an advance of 10,000 for an oxygen cylinder for a family member whose oxygen levels had started dropping. Sitting miles away from home, Arunachalam made desperate calls to friends in Delhi who were able to find a lead on Twitter. Soon after the payment, the calls on the vendor’s number went unanswered and the promised oxygen cylinder never came.

“Since I am not in the country, my friends were coordinating on my behalf. They found a lead on Twitter and called the number. The vendor seemed genuine to us. He sought our Aadhar number and other details. We made a calculated risk but the delivery never happened,” said Arunachalam.

He said with so many verified leads floating on social media and other users vouching for the authenticity of these leads, people fall for such vendors. “The word verified has lost its meaning. When friends tell you that a lead is verified, it just becomes more believable. We didn’t realize that there are others trying to use the crisis to their advantage,” said Arunachalam.

The cases are one too many.

When 25-year-old Feroze’s father’s oxygen levels started dipping below 90 this week, the banking professional started hunting for an oxygen cylinder. A lead, originally shared on a social media platform, came his way. He called on the number and was asked to make an advance payment of 5000, which he promptly complied with. “Since the situation was critical, I immediately made the payment only to realize that the vendor was a fraud. In these terrible times, along with the loss of life, we are also witnessing loss of money,” said Feroze.

Another citizen, who declined to give his name, lost 12,000 for Remdesivir vials that he ordered for his aunt, who is undergoing treatment for Covid-19. The vendor seemed genuine and even shared a picture of the medicine, which prompted the journalist to go ahead with the payment. However, the number was switched off soon after and there has been no response since then.

“My friend had arranged the number from another acquaintance, who had procured the vials from the vendor. It didn’t work for us,” said the journalist, who is yet to arrange the required medicines. “I am desperately trying to arrange the medicine but have had no luck so far. I am not in the space to go after the vendor,” he added.

Delhi police officers said they would take action against fraudsters misusing pleas for help on social media. Chinmoy Biswal, spokesperson for Delhi Police, said, “If people who have been duped file complaints, we will conduct investigation and take strict action against the fraudsters if the allegations are found to be true. We are already keeping a vigil on hoarding and black marketing of life-saving medicines, injections and oxygen. More than 20 people have been arrested for such offences in the last one week or so.”

Deputy commissioner of police (cyber cell) Anyesh Roy said given the current situation, people are desperate and as a result, verification--that they would have done in normal circumstances, have taken a back seat. Roy said while there are some people who have not delivered since they had exhausted their capacity, there were instances of frauds too.

“If you are asked to pay in advance, you should meet the vendor once. Insist on getting the physical location. This is a basic precaution. People should go through proper channels, such as hospitals, instead of informal means,” said Roy. He said that now medicines were being available through the formal channels which meant that anyone still claiming to sell these medicines is likely to be a fraud.

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