In May 2021, M Rafiq*, an IT employee from Bengaluru came across a link on Instagram for a colour prediction app in which was promised a minimum 10% return for predicting a colour or a combination of colours on the app. The techie began chatting with a person over WhatsApp who helped him install the app, and as advised by the person, Rafiq first placed a bet of Rs 10,000 on the colour red and won Rs 20,000. The win encouraged him to invest more money. The victories kept coming and before long, the techie had placed bets worth Rs 5.5 lakh on the app. The app wallet showed his earnings as a total of Rs 7.67 lakh, but when he tried to withdraw that money, he couldn't.
A colour prediction app is a type of gambling application, where you can place bets to predict the correct colour or a combination of colours on the app. Players win money for predicting the correct colour, and the apps offer rewards if they help to enroll more people. However, investigators have found that these gambling applications are often used by scammers to rope in unsuspecting victims, and none are available on the Google Play Store.
“From Rs 10,000, I raised the money to Rs 30,000 then to Rs 50,000 and then invested Rs 1 lakh. I won a few times and lost many times. To recover the loss, they asked me to invest more. I had by then spent Rs 5.5 lakh on the colour prediction app. The app wallet showed my total winnings from the app as Rs 7.67 lakh but didn’t let me withdraw the amount unless I deposited another Rs 50,000,” says Rafiq. He ultimately deposited the Rs 50,000 and was informed that the money would be deposited in his account. But the Rs 7.67 lakh never reached his bank account, even though the app wallet was empty.
In June, Rafiq filed a complaint with the Bengaluru city police. He also found that a few of the alleged scammers with whom he interacted had Hong Kong-based phone numbers. Though the information was shared with the Bengaluru cyber crime police, “they didn't pay much attention to this. There is no progress in the case,” he says.
Another victim was Balaji from Chennai, who was introduced to the colour prediction app through a text message. He lost Rs 1.73 lakh placing bets on the app in May. Balaji approached the Adyar cyber crime police station and a case was booked, but says he was ridiculed for getting scammed. “The police inspector said if I have a lot of money, I should lend it to him and collect the interest. The police collected details of the UPI accounts to which the transactions were made, but did not make any progress in the case,“ says Balaji.
Venkatesh Vanjaku from Andhra Pradesh runs a blog where he explains the different types of scams being run in India, and assists victims in reporting cybercrime to the police. The blogger claims there are over thousands of websites for colour prediction alone, and not just limited to apps. In his blog, Venkatesh analysed 60 websites catering to colour prediction and found their IP addresses to be based out of China. “In my blog, I have mentioned perhaps just 60 colour app betting links but in my interaction with victims, I have come across close to 2,000 websites. All of them have similar-sounding names with small variations to their domain names.”
The Hyderabad police in August 2020 had busted a Rs 1,600 crore colour prediction scam and had nabbed four persons in connection with the case. One of the persons arrested was Yah Hao, a Chinese national. He was apprehended from IGI Airport in Delhi while boarding a plane to Europe. The three other people arrested in the case are Dheeraj Sarkar of Gurugram, Ankit Kapoor and Neeraj Tuli of Delhi.
KVM Prasad, the Assistant Commissioner of Police with the Hyderabad cyber crime police who investigated the case, tells TNM that the money was laundered and sent to bank accounts in Singapore. The money laundering aspect of the crime is being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate, he adds. Another senior police officer from Hyderabad said the ED is better equipped to investigate the money laundering aspect of the case and that the local police have a large volume of cybercrime cases under investigation. Diverting resources for a single case is not practical, the officer says.
Venkatesh says making online betting illegal discourages victims from reporting the crime. The techie in March this year had filed a complaint with the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal against the colour prediction app on behalf of a friend. He had also approached the Tirupati cyber crime police, but the case made no progress. “I explained how the fraud works to the police, without revealing the identity of the scam victims. The police filed a case and created awareness about colour prediction apps, asking the public to not fall for the scam. But they didn't have the proper team to investigate and nab the culprits in such a case. The case is still with them but there is no progress,” he adds.
“The police at station level need to be trained better to handle cyber crimes being reported at their stations,” says Balaji Vijayaraghavan, an activist with Save Them Foundation, a team of cybersecurity researchers investigating cybercrimes in India. “Even when we explain to them a new type of scam, the police fail to grasp the severity of it because of poor training.”
It becomes a lot more difficult for victims of cybercrimes to report the frauds if they are from outside cities in India, says Smith Gonsalves, a cyber expert, who specialises in enhancing the information security of MNCs and assisting Law Enforcement Agencies in Cyber Crime related cases. “Local police won't be knowledgeable about the new kinds of frauds that are emerging. You will end up running from pillar to post and in most instances, a complaint detailing the crime will be taken from the victim but no case will be registered. Law enforcement agencies need to update themselves to understand how such frauds can be tackled and learn how to investigate such applications,” says the researcher, adding that these scams pose a national security risk.
While there is a National Cybercrime Training Centre to train police officers in cybercrime awareness, investigation, forensics etc., only 1632 certificates have been issued for training, according to its website.