In the last week of February, a seven-member team of the Tamil Nadu police landed in a remote village in Rajasthan, called Barathpur, in search of unknown criminals who were responsible for a country-wide scam carried out on OLX, a classifieds marketplace. Little did they know that 10 villages in the area were in on the scam that has duped thousands of unassuming buyers across the country.
The search that led the TN police on the 2,000 km chase to the western corner of the country was in fact the culmination of a series of complaints received over a period of three months. Reportedly, 14 cases from different parts of Chennai were made on these unknown scammers who were luring prospective buyers with compelling offers on second-hand cars and two-wheelers with fake identity proofs. In all cases, the scammers fashioned themselves into army personnel wanting to do away with their vehicle on account of a long-distance transfer.
While their detailed modus operandi in itself is interesting, the operation executed by the TN police is nothing short of a Tamil film script; Dheeran Adhigaram Ondru comes to mind.
The method of operation
On January 3, Central Crime Branch received a complaint from a Chennai resident Suresh (name changed) who had recently lost a significant amount of money on a deal that was supposed to bring home an army personnelâ€™s used bike. Soon after Suresh wired the amount, he was unable to reach the seller. Shocked and disappointed, Suresh filed a police complaint â€“ however, he was neither the first nor the last to have fallen victim to these scamsters.
Speaking to TNM, a police officer who was involved in the operation explains, â€śThey put up ads for cars, phones, two-wheelers etc., with photos and contact numbers. When the buyer contacts them, they tell them that they work in the army and are leaving on a transfer to Kashmir, wanting to sell the vehicle.â€ť
The scammers source pictures of vehicles off the internet, army officersâ€™ identity cards possibly from photocopying places and their photos from social media accounts.
â€śThey also tend to provide detailed information from their end. Once they receive an advance amount, ranging anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Rs 50,000, on PayTM or any such online payment portal, they send the buyer pictures of the packed vehicle, ready to be couriered. This they source from the internet. It is also possible to capture such pictures from the Railway stations. Next they share a manufactured Army Canteen Card to establish more authenticity, followed by a counterfeit army courier receipt,â€ť explains the police officer.
â€śThey do all this with the practised comfort of a seasoned scammer,â€ť the police officer says, â€śThere is no chance of the buyer doubting the identity of the seller at any point. Next, they proceed to ask for more money in the name of insurance renewal, courier charge, tax. All this would amount to another Rs 50,000 and once theyâ€™ve received this amount, anyone can guess what happens next.â€ť The conmen either block the buyerâ€™s number on their phones or discard their SIM altogether, making it impossible to get in touch with them again.
Cracking the case
While police teams from Telangana and Karnataka, too, were on the lookout for the group of criminals executing such scams on OLX, it was the TN police who were able to nab them. Two accused, 36-year-old M Naresh Pal Singh and 26-year-old L Bachchu Singh, have been brought to Chennai for further questioning and are being interrogated for further details. Police believe residents of 10 villages in Bharatpur are well-versed in this modus operandi and further investigations will lead them to many others from the region.
The police officer from Chennai tells TNM that the scammers have been careful in their method of operation â€“ until Sureshâ€™s case. â€śBefore that, we only got the payment portal details which are usually linked to the mobile number. With Sureshâ€™s case, we were able to get the bank account details, leading us to the two.â€ť
Lack of cooperation by Rajasthan police?
Itâ€™s not just the Tamil Nadu police who have been on the tail of these scamsters â€“ the Bengaluru police recently arrested five men from Rajasthan in the Karnataka capital, who had been running a scam by impersonating the Bengaluru Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao himself. The Hyderabad cyber crime police receives at least 20 complaints on average every day specifically about online cheating â€“ they recently went on a two-week mission to Kaman town in Rajasthan, but did not find success. The Bengaluru police went to Bharatpur district in Rajasthan around the same time.
The Hyderabad officials were looking for an offender who has cheated numerous people in the city of lakhs of rupees. The Bengaluru police along with a superior officer went to Rajasthan to bust a gang which had been cheating people by impersonating none other than Bengaluru commissioner, Bhaskar Rao.
On February 14, officials headed by Cyber Crime Sub-Inspector K Madhusudhan, who handles online frauds, reached Kawan. However, mostly these efforts to arrest the offenders behind the scams are unsuccessful, as police complain lack of coordination from their counterparts in the aforementioned states.
The Hyderabad officer alleges lack of coordination by the local police in Rajasthan and Haryana. "There won't be any accommodation available for us. The police there wouldn't arrange for any Quick Response teams in case of any violence against us,â€ť he says.
In one particular case, based on a fraudsterâ€™s phone location and bank transactions, police identified that he was also swindling money from the e-mitra banks, which are unique to Rajasthan, Haryana and some other northern states. These banks disburse loans to the farmers in the villages. The Hyderabad Police approached the bank manager in Kawan and alerted them about the scam. The bank manager assured all possible help to nab the accused. "But this was a pretence, the bank manager had also colluded with these fraudsters. Our investigation found it. The local police would be definitely aware of this, but they wouldn't disclose this to us fearing retaliation from the offenders.â€ť
In a statement issued, OLXâ€™s General Counsel Lavanya Chandan notes that the platform has developed an algorithm to prevent such frauds from happening. The algorithm will mainly identify ads that feature extremely low prices, below regular market rates. With this algorithm in place, OLX claims to have identified hundreds of cellphone numbers and have blocked them.
â€śOLXâ€™s role in connection with cyber-crimes is threefold. One, to prevent fraudsters from entering the platform. Second, educating users on how to transact safely on the platform. And finally, OLX reacts swiftly to frauds that have taken place where its Trust and Safety helpline provides users with an effective means to report fraud and for law enforcement agencies to expedite their information request to solve cases before them.â€ť
How to stay safe
While the case itself is without any doubt the near-perfect con, the Tamil Nadu police are confident people can outsmart the scamsters just by staying a little cautious.
â€śIt is the responsibility of buyers to be cautious during such transactions. If we want to buy a second hand two-wheeler from a physical shop, we would go personally to visit the seller, check documents, its authenticity and also make sure the seller is genuine. It is only after this that money will even exchange hands,â€ť says the official. Police point out that these precautions must apply to the online world as well.
â€śYou should not pay the money till you receive the product in your hand. If it is a local seller, go see the product in person. If it is a vehicle, make them bring it to a public place for your own safety,â€ť he says.
â€śMost importantly check for the documentation and details of the previous owner. There are chances of the vehicle being stolen property. Selling or buying an item without verifying it in person should be avoided at all costs,â€ť he insists.
Referring to incidents of violence in which the buyer has been physically assaulted and mugged, the officer adds, â€śDo not go to any lonely locations and never go alone.â€ť
Similar precautions need to be in place for a seller. â€śThere have been cases when the buyer offers to buy an item, they share a QR code in the pretext of transferring funds. When the seller scans the code, they find out that their bank account has been drained.â€ť
OLX advisory -
Never make any advance payments. Pay only when you have received and examined the product in hand.
Exercise caution when placing any reliance on identification cards especially from individuals pretending to be armed forces personnel as it could be fake.
You can choose not to share your number publicly on the OLX app by hiding your number in the privacy section while posting an ad.
When accepting payments via UPI apps and digital wallets ensure that itâ€™s a credit request to deposit money into your account and not a request to debit money from your account. If the UPI request asks you to input your pin, then refrain from doing so and report the account immediately to OLX.
Never click on any suspicious links from unknown third parties soliciting payments.
Always meet buyers and sellers in a public place situated in a well-lit area.
Keep your interactions with the buyer and seller on the app instead of Whatsapp or any other chat platforms.