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Cybercrime threat spreads in rural Maharashtra

As online crimes rise and detection rates remain low, experts say govt must not only focus on digitisation, but also pay attention to cyber security

mumbai Updated: Nov 16, 2017 23:49 IST
Debasish Panigrahi
Debasish Panigrahi
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Cybercrime,Rural Maharashtra
At least one case is reported every hour, and rural centres threaten to surpass cities in the tally.(Pic for Representation)

In March this year, the National Finance Corporation of India announced that an estimated Rs4.46 crore had been moved out of Bank of Maharashtra accounts because of a bug in its Unified Payment Interface (UPI) application.

Criminals sitting in Bhayander and Palghar had identified the bug in the system that allowed funds to be transferred out of accounts even when they did not have the required funds. Cashing in on the technical glitch, cyber criminals had opened 50 to 60 accounts at various banks, mostly in rural Aurangabad, where unsuspecting villagers thought it was a central government initiative to open accounts in rural India. The swindlers lured people with promises of earning commission if they let funds get transferred into their accounts. Later, the money was quickly withdrawn and the criminals disappeared, leaving the villagers to deal with police investigations for a crime they had not committed.

The fraud brought to light, among other things, the easy reach of cyber criminals and the vulnerability of rural India to tech-savvy criminals.

A glance at the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures over the past decade shows that Maharashtra has been on top of the cybercrime chart among states in the country for years.

From a total of 13 cyber offences reported in 2002, the figure shot up to 901 in 2012 and 2,312 in 2015. It witnessed a further increase last year, when a total of 2,417 cases were reported. The trend has continued in the first six months of 2017, with 1,046 cases already registered by June 30.

Experts say improved internet connectivity in the state has been matched by a parallel rise in the number of cyber offences. Rapid proliferation of 3G- and 4G-enabled affordable smartphones and cheap internet data packages have made the situation worse as people browse and download applications recklessly without even being aware of the need to take security precautions, thereby exposing themselves to cyberattacks. Take the case of cybercrimes in Yavatmal, among the most backward districts in the state – it registered 85 such cases in 2014, the highest among districts in rural Maharashtra.

Now, at least one case is reported every hour, and rural centres threaten to surpass cities in the tally.

Sources in the Director General of Police’s (DGP) office said the detection rate of cyber offences across the state, however, remains as low as 25 per cent against the over 70 per cent in traditional crimes.

According to senior police officials, low detection rates are primarily because of people’s lack of awareness about cyber hygiene and a lack of focus on cybercrimes in the modernisation programmes. “The focus of these programmes is more on finding ways and means to contain traditional crimes and terrorism. Cybercrime receives scant attention,” a senior police official said, requesting anonymity.

Realisation of the danger of paying scant attention to cybercrime has dawned with a spurt in such cases in rural areas over the past two to three years, which affected rural economy, rattling the state government and prompting it to announce an ambitious Rs1,000 crore Maharashtra Cyber plan last year. Its objective: to prevent and investigate cybercrimes under the supervision of an Inspector General-rank officer.

As the plan rolled out, by October 2016, 48 cyber labs were set up across the state, of which 44 are attached to dedicated cyber police stations. According to sources in the home department, efforts are also underway to draw up a manual that police stations across Maharashtra have to follow while investigating cyber offences.

Brijesh Singh, inspector general of police, cyber, said the growth of cyber offences in the state is not only an indication of internet penetration, but also a statement on sincerity in the registration of cases. “It is true that cyber offences have increased over the years as we have the maximum internet users among all states in India. At the same time, assessment of the crime situation is known because we are prompt in registering offences,” he said.

An analysis of cybercrime cases registered across Maharashtra suggests that financial frauds, vishing, cheating, forgery and hacking systems constituted the bulk of the offences, followed by obscene and provocative posts.

As against 714 cases of cheating, forgery and criminal breach of trust registered in 2016, 490 such cases have already been registered in the first six months of 2017.

A majority of these cases pertain to vishing, wherein scammers masquerading as bank officials transferred money from unsuspecting accountholders after obtaining their personal and account details over telephone.

Hacking of computer systems also witnessed a sharp rise in 2017, with 264 cases reported till June 30, as against a total of 320 cases reported last year.

Cyber experts attribute the rise in cybercrimes to the lackadaisical approach of authorities towards internet security. “While the government is putting emphasis on digital India, little attention is being paid to make the country cyber secure,” said internet expert Vijay Mukhi.

Rapid digitisation is bound to see a parallel increase in cybercrimes.

“The irony is that even financial institutions are not taking cybercrimes seriously; their main thrust remains on physical security of their premises,” he said. “Things will move from bad to worse if focus is not put on cyber security in the coming years.”

First Published: Nov 16, 2017 23:49 IST