Plasma to personal data, fraudsters profit off covid desperation

Rajeev Singh Chauhan, 43, was battling for life in a hospital bed in Gurugram when his wife breathed her last, becoming another victim of the rampaging coronavirus pandemic. Their children are with a friend and are unaware of their mother’s demise.

The deaths and devastation are but just one facet of the brutality of the pandemic. In the 10 days leading to his hospitalization, Chauhan was duped twice as he desperately searched for oxygen cylinders for himself and his gasping wife.

Hundreds of criminals have swooped in to defraud desperate people searching for lifesaving drugs, oxygen, plasma and hospital beds. For the victims, the feelings of loss and sadness rank alongside those of rage at the criminal profiteering and swindling that have become rampant amid the crisis.

“I have lost money twice trying to buy oxygen cylinders. Frauds are using social media to exploit helpless people. The healthcare system and the general administration has crumbled, but so has the general morality of people,” said Chauhan from his hospital bed. He has been recently shifted out of the critical care unit.

“I am just one of the many victims, but such information needs to reach more people so that they are not duped,” Chauhan said in a phone conversation.

Anxious family members are posting personal details, including phone numbers, Aadhaar numbers and even bank details, on social media platforms in a desperate bid to save friends and family members. But a few people with no legitimate intention of helping others are using the information to commit fraud.

Security experts said dependence on social media in the absence of adequate state response will lead to explosive growth in identity thefts and financial losses. “I have received 300 calls in the past month from largely covid-affected people on how they were duped for medicine, oxygen cylinders and plasma donations after their details became public,” said Rakshit Tandon, a Noida-based cybersecurity expert who offers his expertise to police departments.

“People are putting out personal details on social media. In the next few months, we may be facing a wave of cyber frauds. Four categories of frauds are happening—healthcare frauds, hacking of accounts, mobile phone cloning and ‘dating fraud’. In the fourth category, cybercriminals are using mobile numbers from social media to honey-trap people over video calls to extort money,” said Tandon.

Ritesh Bhatia, a Delhi-based cybersecurity expert, said: “Criminals are doing a mass data-mining exercise. In the past few days, I have got four cases where cyber frauds have duped people of between 50,000 and 125,000 each in the name of helping them with covid care.”

“The fraud cases and attempts have jumped 25 to 30 times in the second wave of the pandemic. While I get three to four cases a month normally, I am getting almost 30 cases a week now. It’s a huge crisis. The cloning of bank or wallet accounts is happening big time. Identity theft is rampant, and with e-KYC catching up, these publicly available documents can be fodder for cyber frauds,” Bhatia said.

Both Tandon and Bhatia said with most offices shut and police busy managing covid-related issues, cyber frauds are not getting reported. “There is a need to have a centralized system to deal with cybercrimes, else jurisdiction issues come up,” said Tandon. Chauhan said the Delhi covid care helpline did not listen to his problems as he is admitted to a Gurugram hospital, although the fraudsters were from Delhi.

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