On October 16, 2019, Indian Express carried an ominous news report next to an equally troubling public notice on its front page.
The news report discussed the death of three depositors of the Punjab Maharashtra Co-operative Bank as a result of "severe stress" due to the PMC Bank crisis which inhibited depositors from withdrawing more than Rs. 25,000.
The public notice by the Bank of Maharashtra was aimed at dispelling social media rumours around the financial health of the bank. It assured its customers, shareholders and the general public, that the bank's "financial health will remain sound, as it is well capitalised by the Government of India".
Seeing these two items next to each other was a clear indication that an existing crisis situation in the banking sector was crossing paths with a massive misinformation campaign.
According to author and economist Vivek Kaul, if the rumours are not treated with utmost seriousness, it could potentially be disastrous for the Indian banking and finance sector.
Just days after the PMC Bank crisis hit the news, BOOM received multiple forwards on its WhatsApp helpline, that spoke of an imminent shutdown of nine public sector banks in the country - a message that turned out to be fake.
However, that was just the beginning of a series of fake notifications, with claims ranging from more banks being shut down to currency notes becoming defunct.
"I'm not sure they (RBI) understand how powerful social media is and how it works," Kaul told BOOM during the recording of a podcast episode that was dedicated to this matter - to highlight the importance of keeping such rumours at check.
Listen to the episode below.
The List Of Fakes
To highlight the enormity of the ongoing misinformation campaign on banks, BOOM rounded up all the banking related misleading and fake messages it had run into between September 25 and October 16, 2019.
1. The Shut Down Of Nine Banks
On September 25, 2019, just one day after the PMC Bank crisis hit the news, BOOM received the following message on its helpline number:
BOOM found this message to be factually incorrect.
Going by the comments we received along with the forwards on WhatsApp, it was clear that this message had spread a lot of panic among people who were witnessing the eruption of the PMC Bank crisis.
2. Image Showing Proposed Merger List Of Public Banks
While the Reserve Bank of India was coming to terms with the onslaught of the first round of social media rumours, we received another message on our WhatsApp helpline.
It claimed to provide a run-down of a list of mergers of public sector banks.
This image had been floating on social media after Finance Minister announced the mergers of public sector banks on August 30, 2019. Following the PMC Bank crisis, it become increasingly viral.
This too, turned out to be fake, with the RBI refuting the authenticity of the image.
3. The Shutting Down Of Yes Bank
Simultaneous to the PMC Bank crisis, Yes Bank - an Indian private sector bank - was experiencing the worst slump in its shares in ten years.
The rumour mills were quick to create another viral message, claiming that Yes Bank could be the next to close down after PMC
A Yes Bank spokesperson told BOOM that the message was baseless and that the financial position of Yes Bank was sound.
Yes Bank went on to register a complaint with cyber cell of Mumbai Police.
4. Rs. 2000 Notes Defunct After October 10, 2019
On October 5, BOOM received yet another message on its WhatsApp helpline, that was reminiscent of the demonetisation exercise carried out in 2016.
The message claimed that Rs. 2000 notes will become defunct from October 10, 2019 onward, as new Rs. 1000 notes were about to be launched on January 1, 2020. The message also claimed that a person can only exchange Rs. 50,000 in ten days, hence it should be exchanged at the earliest.
An RBI spokesperson refuted the claims by stating that "the RBI had issued no such order".
5. Rs. 1000 To Be Reintroduced
No sooner had we debunked the fake viral on Rs. 2000 going defunct, we came across another message that claimed to show the new Rs. 1000 notes.
While the probability of seeing new Rs. 1000 notes cannot be overlooked, the images we saw were too fantastic to be true.
Upon scrutinising the note, it became clear that it was a creative work of imagination by an artist.
The words 'Artistic Imagination' on the top right hand corner was a major giveaway, along with the fact that the the RBI governor's "promise to the bearer" carries a signature of Mahatma Gandhi, instead of Shaktikanta Das.
6. HDFC Stamp
Another image going viral on WhatsApp claims that HDFC Bank will not take responsibility of deposits beyond Rs. 1 lakh.
The image going viral with the claim shows a stamp carrying a clause by RBI subsidiary Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation stating that deposits are insured upon liquidation of the bank.
However, we found that the stamp was made as a part of HDFC Bank’s compliance with a Reserve Bank of India (RBI) notification dated June 22, 2017.