Promised free vehicles, funds? It’s all fake

Here’s an exercise: Log onto any social media or technology platform, whether Google, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Type the name of any of these “schemes” — Free Laptop Scheme, PM Scooty Yojana, PM Kisan Tractor Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Solar Panel Yojana, and PM Kanya Aashirwad Yojana. You will be promised anything from free vehicles to free funds to fake employment offers. While fraudsters have been duping the public with non-existent government schemes for some time, this problem has become more widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic. We live in an era where selling personal data can get a fraudster lakhs of rupees. Many of these fake schemes are aimed not only at harvesting the personal data of citizens, but also duping them financially.

The extent and spread of fake schemes on these platforms can be quite surprising to some. But while other forms of misinformation (commonly known as fake news) are widely discussed and researched, fake schemes do not figure as often as they should in these debates in India, though they are very common. Like other forms of misinformation, fake schemes also cause immense harm to large sections of the public. Unlike other forms of misinformation, news about fake schemes is shared by people across the ideological and social spectrum.

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Modus operandi

The modus operandi of fake schemes is more or less similar in most cases. In the case of fake employment and loan schemes, people receive a personal or general message informing them that they have been selected for a government scheme (which most often does not exist). They are told that if they wish to avail the benefits of the scheme, they have to pay a certain amount as processing charges. The fraudsters are available for contact till the processing charge is paid, but disappear once they receive the money.

Some fake schemes do not leave any digital trace on the Internet despite the times we live in. An example is the Gram Vikas Rozgar Yojana, a fake employment scheme. Letters were directly sent to ‘village pradhans’ (sarpanches) in Telangana, Punjab, Meghalaya and some other States asking them to select candidates from their village and send a demand draft of ₹1,200 per candidate to get their villagers enrolled under the scheme. Unfortunately, without checking with the official agencies, many youngsters sent these amounts. All this was done without leaving any digital trace or no phone number. There were only letters and an address.

In some cases, people even lined up before government offices and demanded officials to register them under these fake government schemes. At times, political leaders have had to come on television to clarify that there are no such schemes, as in the case of the PM Scooty Yojana.

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Leaving details online

While communal, social and political fake news gain a lot of attention and mostly get shared on social media platforms, fake government schemes appear to have created their own niche in the world of fake news. They mostly get shared through fake website links on social media platforms, WhatsApp messages and YouTube videos. A simple search with the name of these schemes on platforms like YouTube shows us how deep rooted and successful the fake schemes ecosystem is.

Though many people are literate, they still believe these schemes to be true and fall for them. On many YouTube videos explaining these fake government schemes, individuals have left their personal details like phone numbers, Aadhaar numbers and bank account details in the comments section. So, it is not just people’s money but privacy too that is in danger with these fake schemes.

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With no proper and quick grievance redress mechanism, most of the duped citizens blame themselves for falling for the scam and remain silent. There is also the danger that they won’t apply for genuine schemes when they constantly come across fake ones.

Tackling the problem

While the Press Information Bureau and a few State governments have set up fact-checking initiatives, the visibility of these initiatives is limited. The need of the hour is an integrated and concerted effort by all stakeholders to tackle the menace of fake schemes.

For starters, there is need for a centralised government portal with a toll-free number where people can inquire about the messages and file complaints, like they do in the case of cybercrimes. The portal should direct the complaints of people who get duped to the relevant State Police, who should be equipped to deal with the fraudulent practices in a swift manner.

Second, social media and technology companies design dedicated policies, like they do for countering hate speech, to take action against individuals/groups posting such content intended to cheat the public.

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Third, most of these fake schemes operate through websites which look like government portals. Websites that have names similar to government schemes need to be monitored, and necessary proactive action should be initiated if they resort to malpractices. The same can be done with bank account names that sound similar to real government schemes.

Further, the government should not only print and broadcast advertisements about genuine schemes, but also alert people about fake schemes so that people are able to differentiate between what’s genuine and what’s fake. The mainstream media, both print and electronic, which gets government advertisements, should be mandated to carry some of these alerts. The messages should be available everywhere, including in districts, and in the local languages.

It would also help if there is one single website where people can access all the information they need about various government schemes at both the Central and State levels. The website should also have a mechanism for eligible individuals to apply. While some fact-checkers debunk these fake schemes and try to fill the information vacuum, the problem is too huge and widespread for any single stakeholder to solve. It requires a concerted effort and coordination between multiple stakeholders such as governments, the media, fact-checkers, NGOs and the civil society. It is high time the government takes note of the fake scheme menace.

Rakesh Dubbudu is the founder of the fact-checking initiative Factly and Akhil Mothe is a fact-checker with Factly

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 3:11:03 PM |

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