A week ago, Manisha Gupta, a PR professional who had been searching for an oxygen cylinder for her aunt informed on a WhatsApp group that she had been scammed. This was one of the hundreds of WhatsApp groups that citizen volunteers had made to help people in the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic while hospitals ran out of essential supplies-- beds and oxygen.
Unable to procure an oxygen cylinder for her aunt at the hospital she was admitted, a desperate Gupta relied on a social media message that was being circulated. "The guy on the phone promised to deliver a 55-litter oxygen cylinder in half an hour. The hospital where my aunt was admitted had run out of supplies already, we had no other way but to make the payment upfront. Manisha paid Rs 12,500 through Google Pay but the cylinder never reached her.
On another WhatsApp group, Mamta Pathak, a homemaker from Delhi narrates a similar experience. "When my sister's daughter-in-law tested positive, we struggled to find a hospital bed. As her oxygen saturation dropped and the hospital supplies dried up fast, we were forced to look elsewhere." Mamta found one oxygen supplier online and paid Rs 21,000 up-front for only a 3-liter cylinder. Later, she found another seller who promised to send an oxygen cylinder for an online payment of Rs 5000. The cylinder never reached her and the seller stopped taking calls.
Mamata said that she tried calling on government helplines, but they were all switched off. There isn't much choice but to rely on the help being offered through social media and WhatsApp messages, Mamata lamented. "We are struggling for every little thing," she added.
Gupta and Pathak are not the only ones to fall for a scam in the middle of a peak pandemic in India. It is a reminder that as scores of good Samaritans in India rally across social media, the scamsters are out there too. But knowing it does not make it easy. Thanks to technology, finding help has become much easier. However, there's also a downside to these social media networks, as often there is a lot of misinformation, unverified leads, fake profiles, pretending to be someone who can help, just to extract more money from people.
The stories of scamsters employing new modus operandi targeting the most vulnerable individuals are adding up to the stress and anxiety that many are facing. Media reports suggested that people being duped over fake apps that claim to measure blood oxygen saturation (SPO2) levels, an innovative ploy to get the public to depart with sensitive health and financial details.
BOOM spoke to technology experts, volunteer groups, social and digital activists to get tips on how to help identify scams, prevent them from occurring and secure yourself and your loved ones in the pandemic.
Build a support team: When trying to find medical help for a loved one, it is easy to feel alone, anxious and stress. People tend to think emotionally and could possibly shut off rational thought. "When you seek help online, simultaneously gather a trusted team of 2-3 close friends or family members offline who can help you verify the information. Try not to solve everything yourself. Your team can help verify information from multiple sources," said Amitabh Kumar, founder of Social Media Matters, a group of digital activists helping disseminate verified hyperlocal information for COVID-19 related issues.
Verify phone numbers directly on Truecaller: Truecaller is a smartphone application with features like caller identification and spam blocking. Even if you are not an active user, you can cross-check any numbers you receive online and are about to dial. The data is crowd-sourced, from millions of its users, allowing them to block spam numbers and report them to the app's database, so that others may also be protected from potential spammers/scamsters and stalkers. Alternatively, you can also sign in with a Google or Microsoft account on truecaller.com. If the number you are calling has a red spam marking or is marked as scam/fraud, it is almost certain that the number belongs to a bad actor or fraudster.
Hitesh Raj Bhagat, Director of Corporate Communications at Truecaller said, "We know that people are looking for verified information. We have therefore made a 'Covid Healthcare Directory' available inside the app. This is available for all Android users on Truecaller, accessible from the menu. Inside, you will find verified state hotlines, information on hospitals plus a banner that opens verified information, including detailed location and a map view. Some of the other tips to use Truecaller effectively and avoid scams are listed on the company's blog here.
Search the web: "Once you receive a contact number for oxygen or medicine procurement, and hospitalization, copy and paste the number into a search engine or Twitter search bar to check if it's been reported by others. In case it is a fraudulent number, chances are that others who have received it as well have already reported it as fake," said Nitesh Singh, a founding member of TeamSOSIndia, a volunteer-driven initiative helping people across India, amid the second wave of coronavirus.
Beware of 'pay and receive': Fraudsters are targeting the needy-- the ones whose family members are infected and who are desperate for a speedy solution. A common operandi, therefore, is to ask for the payment prior to the delivery of medical supplies like oxygen concentrators, cylinders, and medicines. Vulnerable people often end up making the payment upfront, in a bid to secure a loved one's life only to find the scammers either block their numbers or do not receive their calls.
"A serious dealer or someone with a proper shop or is doing a business on a scale will first provide you the product or services like cash on delivery. Sending money to a random stranger on these mobile apps is something everybody should kind of shy away from," explained Kumar. The devil is always hidden in the details and if there is a message that seems too good to be true, then perhaps it is. "Beware of quacks, trust your gut feeling. In the current situation, if you get an offer that seems too good to be true, while others are struggling for multiple hours to get it, then perhaps it is unrealistic and you are at the risk of being duped," said Kumar.
Identify and reach out to verified helpers and professional volunteers: To begin with, when you seek help on social media, identify and tag professional NGOs and experienced volunteers. Across cities in India, there is a huge army of volunteers and professional NGOs who are helping raise funds, distributing food & utilities, finding verified leads for blood and plasma donors, delivering groceries to the elderly, providing mental health services, amplifying voices of people seeking immediate solutions. Find the right, verified ones-- reach out to them.
Seek redressal immediately: In an unprecedented crisis like the one we find ourselves in, despite the best measures and precautions taken, one can still find themselves in the middle of a fraud. If you have been duped by scamsters or know someone who has faced this tragedy, then immediately contact your local police station, or file a complaint with the police by visiting www.cybercrime.gov.in.
FactChecker is updating this page with real-time, verified helplines and assistance for hospital beds, medicines, oxygen, and blood plasma.
The author is a freelance writer and a fellow at @SRFmentalhealth.