‘Digital arrest’: how conmen posing as police officers are duping people

March 14, 2024 12:27 am | Updated 12:27 am IST - NEW DELHI:

A senior journalist lost around ₹1.2 crore to scammers who called her via WhatsApp.

A senior journalist lost around ₹1.2 crore to scammers who called her via WhatsApp. | Photo Credit: iStock

In November 2023, 50-year-old Rohini, a resident of Noida’s Sector 34, received a phone call from “TRAI officials”. Ms. Rohini was told that a SIM card purchased using her Aadhaar credentials had been used to launder money. At no point did she suspect that she was being led into a rabbit hole of deception that would culminate in her getting defrauded through a modus operandi known as ‘digital arrest’.

Ms. Rohini received more follow-up calls from “senior IPS officers” who asked her to download Skype, a videoconferencing app. She was “interrogated” on Skype calls and told that an arrest warrant had been issued in her name. Only after she transferred some money into an account and an “auditor” approved the transaction would she avoid getting arrested. She was asked not to talk about it as it was a “national security issue”. Ms. Rohini ended up transferring all her savings — ₹11,11,295 — into the account as instructed.

For the next three days, she tried to contact the “IPS officers” through Skype, but nobody picked up. On the fourth day, she understood that she had been scammed and called the police. Her case is still under investigation.

‘Multiple interrogations’

DCP Kuldeep Kumar R. Jain, a senior Bengaluru Traffic Police officer, who has the additional charge of cybercrime, told The Hindu, “We can say that the victims of such fraud are put in a virtual house arrest by the imposters.”

Mr. Jain is investigating two cases of similar fraud in Karnataka. In the first case, a retired IAS officer was duped of ₹11.5 lakh by scammers who introduced themselves as Mumbai Police Crime Branch officers.

A similar case from Bengaluru involved a senior journalist losing around ₹1.2 crore to scammers who called her via WhatsApp.

“So far, in the investigations, we have found that there are many layers of ‘interrogations’ involved, just to ensure the victim ends up believing the process. Their body language is also convincing,” the senior officer said.

He said the victims usually get their first call from a ‘constable’, then from a sub-inspector-level officer, followed by a DCP-level officer, to give the entire scam the veneer of authenticity.

When asked how such conmen get hold of one’s personal details, such as Aadhaar data, a police source said, “We haven’t been able to locate the source of data yet. But we know that bulk data is sold to these people, sometimes through the Dark Web.”

‘Contact the police’

In January, four persons, including a woman and her son, were arrested by the Delhi police from parts of Delhi and U.P. for a ‘digital arrest’ operation, in which they posed as officers and threatened people through video calls. One of their victims was a 65-year-old retired senior manager from Air India.

The victim was told about a parcel being allegedly seized at Mumbai airport by the Customs Department. She was duped of ₹35 lakh.

“When she insisted on knowing whether they were genuine police officers, the imposters even showed the victim a cabin, where two ‘policemen’ were present,” said an officer who is investigating the case.

“We are running public awareness campaigns. Those who get such calls should immediately contact the police and block such callers,” the officer added.

Many such fraudsters dupe people by using profile photos of IPS officers on their WhatsApp and Truecaller IDs. “What people often fail to notice is that the domains from which these emails are sent don’t end with .gov,” the officer added.

A source in the Bengaluru police said, “Cross-questioning in such situations can help a lot. When you start questioning who the nearest SHO is or who the DCP-level officer is of that zone or district, the scammers feel out of depth because they don’t have access to the latest database.”

‘Update passwords’

Last month, a 32-year-old woman — an IT professional based in Noida’s Sector 45 — was duped of ₹3.75 lakh and was ‘digitally arrested’ for seven hours.

The woman said that she received a call around 10.30 a.m. when there was nobody at her house except her father. “I received a phone call where a man, impersonating a police officer, accused me of supplying drugs in a purported parcel, which was sent from Mumbai to Taiwan.”

She was asked to remain on call till 5 p.m., as other “officers” kept joining the Skype call to “interrogate” her and to seek details about her bank account and family. Her ordeal ended only after she paid the imposters.

“One way to protect oneself from such elements is to frequently change passwords and enable two-factor authentication for sensitive data. Also, people shouldn’t click on links from unknown sources,” an officer said.

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