In May of this year, what initially seemed like a golden opportunity turned into a nightmarish ordeal for Mukesh Kumar (name changed) and many others. Mukesh was approached through Telegram with the promise of easy money by simply rating and reviewing hotels on a website that looked similar to AirBnb, the San Francisco-based company for homestays.
The catch? These reviews had to be glowing, five-star endorsements. Mukesh took the bait, only to find himself ensnared in a vicious web of deception. Within just four days, he had lost a staggering Rs 8.70 lakhs.
“It was the biggest mistake,” Mukesh told Decode.
For some time, the National Cyber Crime Helpline (NCCH) had been inundated with complaints of financial fraud following a common pattern. Victims from different parts of India reported that they were offered the chance to work from home using their phones, earning money by rating and reviewing hotels.
The bait was enticing - easy money for a simple task. At first, it appeared as a legitimate opportunity. Fraudsters initially paid small sums to gain victims' trust, but soon, they persuaded their victims to invest larger sums in exchange for more rating opportunities and higher returns. However, once the money was invested, the fraudsters vanished, leaving their victims in despair.
The National Cyber Crime Helpline, operational since February 26, had a dedicated team of law enforcement personnel. Comprising six police inspectors, nine police sub-inspectors, and 139 constables, they worked around the clock to tackle the rising tide of cybercrimes. By August 28 of this year, the helpline had received over 4.01 lakhs complaints.
"Dozens of the complaints were related to this kind of financial fraud. Victims were lured with a promise of good return," SP, cyber crime division of Bihar, Sushil Kumar told Decode.
The investigation into this scam began with the arrest of six individuals from Patna and the neighboring Vaishali district. These arrests shed light on the operations of the criminal gang. The six arrested persons were identified as Prakash Chandra Singh, Ajay Kumar, Sudhanshu, Manas Kumar, Vineet, and Anand. It was discovered that this gang had carried out at least seven similar scams, victimizing people from Telangana, Delhi, Punjab, and Karnataka.
The fraud's modus operandi was intricate, with each gang member assigned specific tasks. Sudhanshu and Manas, identified as chartered accountancy students, were responsible for registering fake companies and opening bank accounts for these entities. They received a 3 percent commission for their role. Prakash Chandra Singh and Ajay Kumar were designated as the directors of these fake companies, earning a 2.5 percent commission.
The remaining gang members were tasked with luring unsuspecting individuals through messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp. They enticed victims with offers of easy money for rating websites and YouTube channels, initially paying them Rs. 50 - 100 for simple tasks. What set this scam apart was the fraudsters' refusal to engage in direct calls with victims. Instead, all communication took place via messages. This ensured that the scam remained elusive.
“The victims were added to Whatsapp and Telegram groups where fraudsters would circulate messages which said that they can earn by just increasing ratings of the website links and YouTube channels. They were initially paid Rs.50 to Rs.100 for just clicking on one link,” one officer of the investigating team told Decode.
Mukesh had his reasons for depositing money repeatedly; his money was stuck.
“Suppose one person has deposited 3 lakhs rupees in fraudsters accounts and they asked to further deposit 1 lakh rupees to get back the initial deposit with bonus, then the person will obviously think that he should deposit the amount. Now his 4 lakhs rupees is on stake. If a fraudster will put a condition that he will get all his money back with almost double the bonus amount if he deposits 2 lakhs rupees, then the person will deposit the asked money. Similar thing happened with me,” Mukesh says.
“I had already deposited 5 lakhs rupees. They asked me to further deposit 3 lakhs rupees and said that I will get a total of 14-15 lakhs rupees. So I deposited, but soon realised that I was trapped,” he says.
As Mukesh's story reveals, the fraudsters continually increased the amount they asked for, holding the victim's initial investment hostage. This cycle persisted until Mukesh had deposited a staggering Rs 8.70 lakhs in just a few days.
“Whenever I tried to call, they would not respond. And after some time, they would send recorded voice messages to ask why I was calling,” Mukesh says.
How The Case Was Cracked
The cyber police took a unique approach to solve this case. Instead of attempting to trace the fraudsters through Telegram, they started tracking the bank accounts where victims had deposited money.
When Mukesh received a bank account number from the fraudsters, it led to their ultimate undoing. Mukesh managed to save a screenshot of the account number just before the fraudsters deleted it. This piece of information was critical to the investigation.
“They sent me the bank account number of the Kadamkuan branch on telegram, but within seconds they deleted the account number and said that they will send another account number. But before they deleted the account details, I had saved a screenshot of the account number and shared this to the police" Mukesh says.
The police traced the bank account to an ICICI Bank branch in Kadamkuan, Patna. The account received a massive Rs 90 lakhs on May 19, with Rs 70 lakhs withdrawn the same day. Intriguingly, Rs 19 lakhs were deposited afterward, leading to the police freezing the account. Unaware of the account freeze, two gang members, Sudhanshu and Prakash Chandra, attempted to have the restriction removed. The police, in cooperation with bank officials, arrested them.
A police officer who works at National Cyber Crime Helpline told Decode, “The scammers rotate money very fast so that money can be withdrawn before the bank accounts are frozen.”
“We have found that in many cases scammed money was moved to more than a dozen bank accounts,” he added.
Freezing of bank accounts prevents any debit transactions, though accounts remain open and money can be credited. But withdrawal is stopped.
When a victim calls the National Cyber Crime Helpline, the police officer asks about the bank account details where he had deposited money. As soon as police get account number details, they immediately contact the bank to freeze the account so that victims can get their scammed money returned. But, many times it is found that by the time the victim contacts the police, the money has already traveled to many accounts.
Fraudsters were unaware as to why the account was freezed. So, on 22 May, Sudhanshu and Prakash Chandra visited the Kadamkuan bank branch to get the restriction on the bank account removed.
The police were sure that the fraudsters would visit the bank; they were in touch with bank officials. Police inspector Dilip Kumar Sah in his formal complaint, wrote, “Bank officials informed us that few persons will be visiting the bank branch to get restrictions removed from the bank account. So, we were already there. We immediately arrested Sudhanshu and Prakash Chandra and interrogated them. During the interrogation Sudhanshu told us that he along with Manas registers fake companies and opens current accounts in the name of companies.”
Two more members of the gang Manas and Anand reached the bank after some time and they were also arrested. Another two persons were arrested from Vaishali on the basis of arrested persons' tip-off.
On 22 May, when the team of police reached the Kadamkuan branch of ICICI bank and met with bank officials, the bank officials informed police that the bank account that received money belongs to a company named Cap Bottle Service Pvt. Ltd. and Chandra Prakash Singh and Ajay Kumar are the directors of the company. Bank officials told the police that three people including two directors had come to the bank to open the accounts.
The three men wanted to open five bank accounts in the name of the Cap Bottle Service Pvt Ltd.
When the bank official reached Kadamkuan area -the address of the company for physical verification, they found that only one small room with some new furniture. Bank officials sensed something fishy, so they opened only two bank accounts and three other applications were rejected.
Police investigation revealed that Chandra Prakash Singh and Ajay Kumar were directors of at least eight companies which were formed from 11 November 2022 to 20 April 2023 and all the companies shared the address of Cap Bottle Service Pvt Ltd.
Birendra, who is the kingpin of this fraud, is absconding. He is alleged to be operating the gang from Kolkata, West Bengal.
Meanwhile, Mukesh is still shocked. He had borrowed money to deposit in fraudsters' bank accounts which forced him to sell his land to repay the money.
“Five months have passed since the fraud and I am still going through mental trauma. Once I had decided to end my life but I controlled myself imagining my children's faces,” he says.
Fraud through the 'work from home' offer is now not sporadic. In Delhi, a man lost to the tune of Rs.32 lakhs in a similar scheme. The accused in this case was nabbed from Muzaffarpur in Bihar.
SP Sushil Kumar says, "We are getting many such complaints."
"People should be alert to 'work from home' offers which promise handsome income. Such offers should be minutely scrutinized as it can be a trap," Sushil Kumar advised.