Policing in the time of crime.con

Illustration: Mithun Chakraborty
Illustration: Mithun Chakraborty

Online crimes have seen a spike over the years and challenged traditional modes of investigation. Technology is the tool and smokescreen of modern day con artists, but it is also the key weapon for investigators to take them down, reports ABHISHEK ANGAD

AT HIS office in RK Puram’s South Eastern Range Crime Branch, Inspector Atul Tyagi is brainstorming with colleagues on a case. They have a number to track. Information comes in that the number has been used to recharge a DTH service. Tyagi’s team members quickly acquire the tower location of the number and study the patterns. It is a trail the investigators will follow till they, hopefully, nab the culprit.
Policing has changed over the years for the seasoned 44-year-old Tyagi. His foundation is old school, but his methods these days are in tune with modern day demands. Con jobs abound and the con artists are at work on computers and phones. Technology is the tool and smokescreen of con artists, but it is also the key weapon for investigators to take them down.

It is a reality that dawned on the police a long time ago amid the spurt in new age crimes such as credit card frauds, fake insurance schemes and job rackets, but investigation still gets bogged down in the system. Criminals keep changing modus operandi, police try to keep pace, but claim they still face a familiar grind to extract information.

Investigation of new age crimes, where time is of the essence, hits walls at different points, say police.
Take for instance, a credit card fraud case registered in southeast Delhi’s Kalkaji police station in April. A businessman had been cheated of lakhs of rupees by conmen who used his credit card info for two online transactions. The Crime Branch found a duplicate SIM card had been issued in the victim’s name without his knowledge. Investigators arrested two MCA (Master of Computer Applications) passouts in the case in July and found they had duped at least five people using similar tactics.

Investigations revealed the accused used to procure credit card details of unsuspecting people on the pretext of enhancing their credit limit. With the details in hand, they would apply for a duplicate SIM card of the victim’s phone number after lodging a lost report on Delhi Police website. They would get the duplicate SIM card, without the victim’s knowledge, and use it for generating an OTP (One-Time Password) and use the credit card details procured earlier for transaction on e-commerce websites. Then, they would make sure the delivery of the goods took place in an open area.

Tyagi says cracking this case took time because e-commerce websites did not respond to police queries quickly enough. He says e-commerce sites do not have nodal officers for emergency situations and investigators are left frustrated. “It is like playing email-email games. We contact them through emails and the back and forth delays our operations. Even if police contact customer care, there is little assistance.”

Tyagi, who has solved at least 25 cases of such frauds in the last one year, says another problem is corporate offices of e-commerce sites do not work on weekends. “All of us know police cannot wait for two days for any operation just because it is a weekend.”

More dirty tricks

In November last year, a case of online fraud was registered at Parliament Street police station. According to sources, the victim was a sitting Member of Parliament. The accused called him on phone and claimed to be an RBI official. The accused obtained his debit card information and an OTP by claiming it was needed for verification procedure. Later, the accused transferred Rs 1.6 lakh from the MP’s account to a virtual wallet. Subsequently, the accused transferred this money to his account in a nationalised bank in Kargil, Jammu and Kashmir. Investigators found phone numbers given by the accused while opening the accounts had been issued on fake IDs.

Cops con conman in Jharkhand’s Jamtara

Investigators faced similar problems in cracking the case. According to an investigator, representatives of virtual wallet companies told them they only “provide technology to other companies and do not possess data of customers’ suspected transaction”. “Whoever did help help us, did so because personal liaison,” says an investigator.

In this case, police arrested one of the alleged handlers in Delhi, but found that the masterminds were in Jharkhand’s Jamtara district. In the last couple of years, the trail of many online fraud cases has led police to Jamtara. In this case, Delhi Police caught the main accused from a village in Jamtara. “It wasn’t easy, but very interesting” says an investigator. “The masterminds in Jamtara deploy young associates to keep an eye on the movement of strangers and raise an alarm in case of any police raid. In this case, the main accused was looking to get married and officials gained access to him by pretending they were from a prospective bride’s family.”

SIM cards on fake IDs a problem area, say police

Senior police officers say apart from geographical challenges posed by new age crimes, given that an accused need not come anywhere near a target, a big problem is the procurement of SIM cards on false IDs.

Officers say they have written a number of times to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) about this. They point out that the government too has imposed a penalty of Rs 2,313 crore on telecom operators in India for violating subscriber verification norms. Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha had informed Parliament about this penalty on August 3. The officers add, despite their intimations and the government imposing the penalty, little has changed on the ground to stop people from getting SIM cards on fake IDs.

Senior police officers second TRAI’s recommendation to the Department of Telecom to allow electronic KYC of Aadhaar as one of the valid documents for getting a new mobile connection. “Normally it takes us time — ranging from a week to months — to track an accused. If the new verification norms are in place, they will save us around 70 per cent of the time in an investigation,” says a police officer.

Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), Ravindra Yadav, says, “The telecom service providers do not respond despite us writing to them. They say they are not responsible and pass the buck to distributors and so on. It finally comes down to small retailers, who are happy being paid Rs 100 extra for providing a SIM card with minimum verification norms.” He feels the policy needs to change.

Interstate Cell case files

At the Interstate Cell of the Crime Branch in Delhi, an investigator says apart from card frauds, call centres making false job promises, false online schemes and fake insurance bonuses have taken a big leap in the last few years.

A big case that gets talked about in the Interstate Cell is unearthing of a gang that duped many people on the pretext of offering them loans under the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme (PMEGP). Some youngsters in Maharashtra received text messages stating they been selected for a loan scheme under PMEGP. A few fell for it and the accused persons duped them of Rs 11 lakh. The gang had targeted people in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. After busting the gang, investigators learnt a bitter lesson —only a few of the victims turned up to pursue the case. “After we got the details, out 100 people only six came forward. An accused returned their money. He also got bail,” says the investigator. “Many of the victims were reluctant to come to Delhi.”

Then there is a 2014 case of people being duped on the pretext of jobs under Rajiv Awas Yojna. Advertisements were given across India and a fake interview was also conducted. An officer associated with the investigation in this case says, “An investigating officer of the Crime Branch travelled across several states and reached out to the victims. Most were reluctant to visit Delhi and claimed they did not want legal hassles. If such cases are registered by police of states where complainants stay, it could be more helpful.”

JCP Yadav says many of the accused use the same trick — target many, don’t take too much from one. “The theme is simple: cheat bulk victims with small quantities. The victims are from different parts of India and the tricksters know many of them would not want to chase their money through legal procedures in the capital. Delhi Police get a lot of emails from people in other states,” adds Yadav.
Investigators say another problem is police in other states do not entertain complainants who say they have been cheated by offenders operating from Delhi-NCR region. “They don’t consider the fact that the victim has been cheated through phone calls,” says an investigator.

Credit card reward points ruse

In May 2016, the Interstate Cell arrested a couple on charges of running a fake call centre. Investigators say the woman would call potential victims and claim to be the representative of the nationalised bank. She would tell a target he/she had received credit card reward points, which would lapse if not redeemed soon. Taking them into confidence, she would get a victim to share credit card details as well as to provide the OTP. The accused would then steal Rs 5,000 from a victim and deposit the money in mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service. Incidentally, there is a restriction of money transfer up to Rs 5,000 per account per day on this forum. Later, police found the couple was running a fake call centre and had bank account details and phone numbers of more than 3,000 intended victims. Investigation also revealed they had cheated more than 400 people.

Sale of credit card details

An Interstate Cell investigator says there is an organised racket which sells credit cards details bank clients. Police are looking to reach the source. What investigators have found is disturbing. “During the questioning, many of the accused said they used to buy credit card data of bank clients. The accused claimed the rate was 50 paise per credit card of a leading private bank and 15 paise per client of another big private bank,” says the investigator.

Cheque frauds

In the span of just five days, between August 3 and 8, two Delhi University professor were cheated of Rs 3 lakh after their cheques were misused.
One professor lost Rs 2.7 lakh from his account after a cheque for Rs 1,140 he had given for a car warranty was misused. Incidentally, another DU professor had lost Rs 32,000 after having similarly given a cheque for Rs 1,140 to a man offering car warranty. Police suspect both professors were cheated by the same man. In both cases, the professors were approached by a man who introduced himself as Rajveer Singh and came in a car with the marking of a company whose warranty he was offering.
Police suspect the modus operandi of the man is: pose as the representative of an automobile company, convince the target, give the target a pen to write the cheque, erase the entry, somehow get details of money in target’s account, fill an amount in own name and get the money.

What’s more, on the day of the transaction, both victims were convinced by the man who made them the warranty offer to switch off their phones to avoid getting repeated calls from their banks.

DCP (North) Madhur Verma says a case of cheating and criminal misappropriation has been registered and investigations are on. “Last year, we had come across a gang with a similar modus operandi. We are looking into the matter.”

Fact Sheet On Plastic Money
Number of credit cards: 2,45,05,219
Number of debit cards: 66,18,24,092
Source: RBI statistics, March 16

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