Nawada/Patna, BIHAR — In February of 2022, a rumour of a middle-aged man winning 20 lakh rupees through a mobile game spread like wildfire in a hamlet with around fifty houses in Bihar.
A resident of the village, Rajkumar Manjhi remembers the hue and cry among the villagers. “They said that the man invested a few thousand rupees and won 20 lakh rupees,” he said. The ‘news’ was viral.
Everyone in the village dominated by the Musahars, a socially marginalised community, thought they had a shot at changing their fortune. They started looking for that mobile game. It was a golden opportunity for the landless Musahars who were living on daily wages, to get rid of their poverty.
At the same time, a 25-year-old man from the same village came forward with the claim that the person who won the grand prize is his relative. He said he can help the villagers in accessing that game.
The game was introduced to the villagers through WhatsApp forwards. Soon, the villagers started to buy virtual pigs and chickens with their hard earned money. For a few days, they got back some money every day, which encouraged them to invest more in the game.
But one day, when they tried to log in to the app, it showed an error. The game was no longer available. Their money was gone.
The angry villagers demonstrated in front of Bhishma Pratap’s house, the man who had introduced the game to them. But he had fled by then.
Maulanagar is a non-descriptive village, situated at the foot of a bare mountain in Nawada district, about 130 kilometers from Patna, capital city of Bihar. A narrow cast road leads to the village from the highway. A few pucca houses are visible in the village, but they do not have plaster and the structure of the houses suggests that they may have been built under the Indira Awas Yojana. Rest of the houses are made of mud.
Many of the men of the families work as laborers in other states, others who are in the village work in brick kilns, construction sites and in farms.
Despite extreme poverty, almost all households have smartphones— most of them used by young men.
Rajkumar Manjhi explained to Decode how the game worked. “Usme batakh, bakri, mor, saanp, gai kharidna padta tha. Agar aap 5000 rupya ka batakh kharidte to apko 400 rupya daily milta (In that app, you had to buy duck, goats, peacocks, snakes, cows. If you would buy a duck for 5 thousand rupees, then you would get 400 rupees daily)”.
The app called Smile Rancher comes from the word Ranch, which means a big farm where animals are bred. The more expensive the animals were, the more money you were promised. It worked like a pyramid scheme.
Rajkumar said that almost all the Musahar families had invested in the game. “We estimate that at least 10-15 lakh rupees were invested in the game by the villagers. The money is all gone now,” he said.
How It All Started
The man about whom the rumor spread, according to the villagers, is the uncle of a local youth named Bhishma Pratap. The villagers say that Bhishma Pratap is the one who spread the rumour.
One of the victims of the ponzi-like game is 17-year-old Dinesh Kumar Manjhi, a resident of the same village. “I had spent 50,000 rupees in the game,” the class 10th student told Decode. “Bhishma Pratap told us that we can also win lakhs of rupees from this game,” he recollected.
This Bhishma Pratap created a WhatsApp group named -Rancher No-1. As the admin of the group, he started adding people who were interested in investing in the ponzi-like game.
The app was developed in such a way that it could be downloaded only through the forwarded link. It was not available on Google Play Store. Dinesh Kumar said, “It was Bhishma who sent the link on WhatsApp. We downloaded the game through that link.”
Currently, the WhatsApp group has more than sixty members. Bhishma left the group exactly at the same time as the app stopped working.
The app, which is now defunct, called itself a “breeding management investment company from the United States.” It noted that the company’s full name is Smile Breeding Management Company ltd and its office is in California. The alleged company, according to the introduction, was founded in 2010. However, Decode could not find any information about this company.
How The Game Worked
After downloading the game, one had to create an account by entering a six digit password. Once the account was created, one could login to find pictures of dozens of animals. Every animal was priced differently.
“The most expensive was the peacock which cost 50,000 rupees. It would earn Rs 3,000 a day. Duck was the cheapest one which cost 5,000 rupees, the app claimed to offer 400 rupees for it every day,” said Suraj Kumar who works at a construction site in the village.
“One had to login everyday and click on the animal or bird that was bought. The earnings on the animals would come in the wallet of the account which was created in the app,” the 18-year-old said.
The maximum limit for withdrawal of money from the wallet was kept at 3000 rupees only. However, the ones who bought and bred virtual animals said that they would often not be able to transfer the money from their wallet to their bank account due to server issues. And yet they kept their hopes of earning money.
The villagers would go to Bhishma when they would get locked out of the game. “He would help us start the game again,” said Dinesh.
But the game wasn’t limited to Maulanagar. It has scammed many surrounding villages. It spread far from Bihar to Assam.
In early July last year, Pranav Chowdhary, a gym trainer in Guwahati in Assam received the link of the game as a WhatsApp forward. Pranav had bought a virtual deer and spent real money of 3500 rupees. Every day, as promised by the app, he got 300 rupees in the wallet. “A total of 2500 rupees was deposited in my wallet,” he said.
But every time he tried to transfer the money to his bank account, an error message of “transaction invalid” would pop up. Before he could get any real money, the app shut down within a few days.
Pranav said at least two dozen people from his gym had invested money in the app. “Some withdrew a few thousand bucks but most of us lost all our money,” he said.
Kasim Khan, who also claims to be a victim of this fraud, had lodged a complaint to the Consumer Complaints court on 22nd July last year.”I invested 55000 rupees into it and after two days, I tried to withdraw the amount. I couldn’t, despite multiple attempts. Now this company has been closed. The company Breeding Management has duped thousands of people through their online scam,” he wrote in his complaint.
However, Decode could not reach the complainant.
A local who wished to remain anonymous told Decode that once the app shut down around 500 people from about 10-12 villages had gathered in front of Bhisma Pratap’s uncle’s house demanding their money but that didn’t work.
Decode spoke to at least 8 people who claimed to have been defrauded by the gaming app. None of them have registered a police complaint.
Bhishma Pratap’s house was locked when Decode reached there. His neighbors said that Bhishma and his elder brother were studying there but they fled overnight once the scam unfolded.
It is not clear whether Bhishma is the mastermind behind the app but when Decode called him he said he does not have the time to talk and quickly hung up.
On Facebook, Bhishma introduces himself as an educational consultant. His bio says he is a Science graduate from Magadh University.
Transaction details Decode accessed says that when victims would transfer the money to buy animals on Rancher App. The money would go to the account of Sewing SKY India Pvt Limited.
According to the ministry of corporate affairs website, Sewing SKY India Private limited is an unlisted company and its registered address is Hyderabad, Telangana. It was incorporated on 7th September, 2018.
Gangadhar Pathri and Ajay Kumar Pathri are directors of the company that deals in the business of fabrics.
The Ministry of corporate affairs website says that the company’s last annual general meeting was held two and a half years ago in December 2020. Status of the company is active. Decode sent a detailed questionnaire by mail to the company but we have not received a response yet. We will update the story as and when we get response.
Back in Maulanagar, Kari Devi is still cursing her luck for taking a loan of 13000 rupees to help her son Suten Kumar, who works in a factory in Chennai, to play the game. “Whatever my son used to make he would put it in the game. We have been robbed," she said.
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