Rajat Sharma

Beware of banking cyber frauds

akb full_frame_60183Today I want to caution all of you about cyber fraud gangs who are stealing money from bank accounts by posing as bank executives. These gangs have stolen crores of rupees from bank accounts of thousands of customers in recent months. Most of the victims ultimately fail to get their money back and in most of the cases, police are unable to catch the fraudsters. At India TV, we get hundreds of phone calls daily from viewers who narrate how they were swindled out of their hard earned savings through online fraud.

The modus operandi of these gangs are simple: they pose as bank executives and call customers to tell them their bank accounts may be suspended or their ATM cards would be blocked because of lack of KYC (Know Your Customer) verification. These fraudsters get all details from customers about their bank accounts, and even the OTP (one time password), and within minutes, thousands and lakhs of rupees are transferred online from bank accounts. The only prevention is to challenge these fraudsters who pose as bank executives, and refuse to give them any details either on phone, or on suspected mail links.

In recent months, police from ten states have visited a relatively unknown place called Jamtara in Jharkhand, from where most of these gangs operate. On Tuesday, Bhopal Cyber Crime Cell officials arrested five persons of such a gang from Jamtara, nearly 1,500 kilometres away from the Madhya Pradesh capital. The five fraudsters had siphoned off Rs 10.40 lakhs from the bank account of a retired BHEL officer on the pretext of updating his KYC details.

This was only the tip of the iceberg. According to police, by going through the seized bank statements of the five accused, it appears that this gang has swindled nearly 1,000 bank customers to the tune of Rs 10 crore. The gang members live in luxurious houses built on Jharkhand-West Bengal border. These buildings have sophisticated alarms, sensor-based doors, and voice command light systems. This gang has duped several thousand bank customers in UP, Delhi, MP, Maharashtra and other states, police said.

Our Bhopal reporter Anurag Amitabh spoke to the retired BHEL officer Devnath Pathak, who narrated his ordeal. The trick lies in getting the OTP from the customer. Once the gang member gets the OTP, the link phone number is changed and all withdrawals take place from the customer’s account, but these are notified to another phone number. The customer remains in the dark and only when the bank statement arrives, he gets to know about the swindle.

According to police, these gang members target their preys by going through Facebook profiles. They also randomly select phone numbers from cellphone data. They then pose as bank executive and tell the customer that his bank account and ATM card is going to be suspended because of lack of KYC verification. In Devnath Pathak’s case, the money was diverted from his account 27 times to eight different bank accounts, all based in Jamtara. When the Bhopal policemen landed in Jamtara, they were greeted with stones thrown from houses of tribals.

Finally, an SUV, 13 cell phones, 11 ATM cards, and 50 forged SIM cards were seized from these five fraudsters. All the five arrested stayed in different villages in far-off areas of Jharkhand and neighbouring West Bengal. Those arrested included Mohammed Imran Ansari, resident of Jamtara, Abhishek Singh, resident of Chittaranjan, WB, Mohammed Afzal and Ghulam Mustafa, both residents of Asansol, WB, and Sanju Debnath a resident of 24-Parganas, West Bengal.

Except two, most of the gang members are illiterate or semi-literate. Mohammed Afzal is a Class 3 dropout, he used to arrange bank accounts and fake SIM cards. He also used to collect swindled money from ATMs. Ghulam Mustafa is a Class 8 dropout, he used to open fake bank accounts and sell them on ‘commission’. Sanju Debnath is a Class 2 dropout, he used to get bank accounts opened based on fake documents. The mastermind of the gang is Mohammed Imran Ansari, who claims to be a B. Tech. He used to speak to customers posing as bank executive. Ansari speaks fluent English and is well versed with banking procedures. He used to get OTPs from customers and pass it on to gang members to swindle money from accounts. He was helped by Abhishek Singh, who has studied law, and used to access bank accounts online to carry out fraud. He used to get the fake bank accounts from Afzal, Ghulam Mustafa and Sanju Debnath, to which swindled money was transferred.

The gang members used to persuade tribals living in Jamtara, Asansol and nearby areas to open fake bank accounts, for which they were paid Rs 10,000 to 15,000 every month. Since these tribals earned easy money, they helped gang members to escape whenever police parties land in villages to nab them. Tribal women throw stones at police parties and the gang members take the cue to escape. Police parties from at least ten states have visited the 50-odd villages around Jamtara in search of online fraud gang members. A team of Nagaland policemen recently came to Jamtara and took away a gang member with them. A police team from Kerala also came in search of gang members who swindled a woman from the southern state.

Senior police officers say, cyber criminal gangs are active in Giridih, Dhanbad and Deoghar, all in Jharkhand. In some cases, the fraudsters, instead of making phone calls, send links to the phone numbers of customers for KYC updation. Some fraudsters even extort money from people by promising them to send them Covid-19 vaccines. Jamtara is however the ‘epicentre’ of such online fraud activities. Villages like Pandeydih, Jhulwa, Kalajharia, Dudhani Mattar, Kherkokundi, Mohanpur, Topatar are among the nearly 50 villages from where online cyber crime activities have been reported.

Police statistics on cyber fraud crimes are frightening. On an average, every day 3,137 cases of fraud are reported. Since online digital banking transactions have increased due to Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a 41 per cent jump in such fraud cases. Cyber frauds have taken place to the tune of Rs 25,000 crore. In 2019 alone, people lost Rs 1.25 lakh crore due to online cyber frauds. Delhi Police seized 214 bank accounts, nearly 900 cell phones and arrested 91 persons on charges of cyber fraud during the pandemic year.

I would appeal to all of you to be careful while dealing with your bank accounts, whether on phone or on internet. There are cyber sharks lurking nearby. Whenever you get such phone calls, remember: None of the banks ever seek your account details over phone, mail or internet. They have they own method of handling such issues.

Out of fear of cyber frauds, you need not discontinue digital bank transactions. Due to pandemic and frequent lockdowns, digital bank transaction has been the fastest and safest method, but never share your OTP with others. Delete the OTP that you get on your phone or in your e-mail, even though they hardly last for a few seconds.

The banking universe in India has been transformed in the last six years due to mass scale digital transactions, more so in the last one and a half year, when the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak took place. Imagine what people would have gone through, had there been no digital banking money transfer facility during lockdown. Had there been no digitization, our battle against Covid pandemic could have been weaker. Be careful when you deal with people who pose as bank executives, either on phone or on your mail.

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