Note to readers: Hello world is a program developers run to check if a newly installed programming language is working alright. Startups and tech companies are continuously launching new software to run the real world. This column will attempt to be the "Hello World" for the real world.
The landline rang and Mrs Raghavan (name changed) picked it up. The caller said that her husband had taken out a life insurance policy and that now that he’d passed away, she was eligible to make a claim.
Mrs Raghavan, in her late 60s, didn’t see any reason to distrust the person on the other end. After walking her through some formalities on several occasions, the caller asked her to send in a cheque of Rs 50,000 so he could release the insurance amount to her account.
Most of us would have caught on to the scam by now. But not Mrs Raghavan, a retired nurse, who had just lost her husband and has never had any experience dealing with such scams. She lost her money, and did not hear back from the caller after sending the cheque.
In her old age, she had no energy to file a police complaint and had to let go of it. Such crimes, against the most vulnerable, have become rampant in the recent past but often go unchecked because the numbers don’t show up on the radar of officials.
A few days ago, I had put up an advertisement on a property listing website. I did not get any response and the website incessantly sold me on a “package”, with the promise of at least 10 responses to my ad. After waiting for a few days, I paid up. Perhaps this is the cost of doing business, and I was fine with it. And the calls started coming.
For the next few days, I fielded at least half a dozen calls, from prospective tenants. All of them claimed to be from the Indian Army. They said they’d been transferred to Bangalore and wanted to see pictures of the house to show their family. The conversation now moved to an instant messaging platform. I sent them pictures, and they instantly agreed—without so much as taking time to negotiate the rent or deposit amount.
The callers sent me their “Army issued ID cards” and photos of their family, and said that they’d get to the office and transfer the advance to my account from their Army account. By now I knew that this was a scam too. They’d take me to a payments app, and have me fill out their account number (instead of mine) in the field that asks for the recipient’s details. It is very likely that if I was unaware, I’d have lost a lot of money in a split second.
I felt good about having saved myself from a scam. But it got me thinking. Who is to blame here? The telecom operators who seem to have no way of shutting down these numbers and callers? The property listing platform which has zero safeguards for people who use their services despite charging users? The cyber police which has an abysmally low rate of conviction (not a single conviction in 2020 in Karnataka)?
India has been blamed often for being a low-trust society. The problems of living in a low-trust society are many. It is not good for business and in general bad for the economic prosperity of a country. In the past, I used to dismiss that as a gross generalization for a country of 1.2 billion people. But it turns out that the problem is real, and technology only has compounded it instead of solving it. Every transaction has become a source of worry and anxiety.
If we want to see a prosperous, $5 trillion economy, a digital India, like the government wishes us to be, we need to have a widespread crackdown on digital fraud. The platforms can not hide behind the protection offered to them under the IT act, neither can the police, or legislators be complacent anymore. This needs an urgent fix.