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Frauds feast on personal data posted on social media for COVID supplies; cybercrimes to jump

Criminals are mining personal data of people seeking help on social media. Many have been duped to pay advance money to cybercriminals and there are cases of women being forced to sleep with a man to get supplies. Cyber experts say criminals will keep misusing the data

May 20, 2021 / 03:08 PM IST

Shweta Varshney (name changed), 24, a resident of Ghaziabad was in desperate need of oxygen cylinder for her mother who was gasping for breath, nine days after testing positive. After enquiring with her friends, she posted her requirement on all her social media handles.

She was happy and relieved to receive a call from man whom Shweta believed to be a supplier from Delhi. He demanded Rs 30,000 in advance and Rs 500 for delivery, which Shweta and her brother paid immediately. The cylinder never arrived – they were duped.

Shweta isn't the only person to have been conned. Cybersecurity experts say there has been an exponential rise in frauds as people post personal details and requirements on social media platforms. Fraudsters are preying upon vulnerable people who are desperately trying to save their friends and family members.

As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic put pressure on India’s already-tattered medical infrastructure and lack of critical supplies, desperate and anxious people took to social media platforms to search for oxygen, plasma, antiviral medicines, ambulances among others by sharing critical personal information like contact numbers, Aadhar cards, bank account details etc.

Security experts have warned that with the ample data available at the disposal of fraudsters, mass data mining is occurring and financial frauds, Call & SMS spoofing (disguising a communication to make to appear to be from a known, trusted source), KYC frauds, opening of fake bank accounts are expected to escalate in the coming months.

"There’s a massive rise in cyber fraud cases where scamsters are posing as ‘verified’ contacts and volunteers for COVID supplies. They then take advantage of families who are in need and are in distress by asking them to make advance payments. After the victim has completed the transaction, these fraudsters block them and disappear. I have been receiving 10-12 such cases everyday now. There are so many that go unreported, you could well imagine the severity of the situation,” said Rizwan Sheikh, a cybersecurity expert from Mumbai.

Many criminals have created tools which alert them as soon as a request is made, and when everything settles down, these criminals will continue to use all the personal information that they have received for other crimes, he said.

“While the motive is mostly to extort money, a wave of other crimes like online bullying, fake profile creation, Call & SMS spoofing will rise in the coming months … Spoofing is not exactly a crime but it is widely used for other large and organised crimes,” he added.

Ritesh Bhatia, a Delhi based cybersecurity expert said there has been a big jump in the cyber frauds complaints he has received in the past couple of days.

“It is harrowing to say the least. I have been receiving about 30 cases a week now. I have received complaints were people have been cheated on by fake vendors and volunteers who vanished off after taking a hefty sum in advance under the pretext of making deliveries. I have some clients who have even lost money over a lakh and some have also been duped twice. Moreover, there are so many women who have been harassed when they sought medical supplies via social media. Some have been sent obscene images and videos and there are others who have been forced to sleep with men in exchange of their requirement,” Bhatia said.

According to Bhatia, criminals are doing a mass data mining and in the coming months a wave of cyber frauds should be expected.

"There are so many people who even posted their bank account details and Aadhar cards on social media. Given that Aadhaar is enough to open bank accounts, a slew of fake accounts will be opened across the country in the coming months and cloning of accounts will happen.  Fraudsters will continue to extort money under the pretext of COVID help, but will change their modus operandi and make use of the personal information for a variety of frauds," Bhatia added.

Rakshit Tandon, another cyber security expert said personal information shared by people on social media platforms was gold for the criminals. He noted that he had received several such complaints where the victims have been cheated by frauds making bogus claims of providing oxygen, beds, ambulance and medicines.

"The criminals pose as verified and genuine suppliers and cheat people and vanish. The criminals are very clever and they will continue to make use of the data with them to do many more crimes. Cyber frauds in general have increased during lockdowns since March 2020as suddenly a lot of people have moved to the digital medium who were otherwise not used to it.  KYC frauds have been happening where the fraudsters under the pretext of KYC updation and dupe people. Such sort of crimes will only increase,” Tandon said.

Shreeja Singh
first published: May 20, 2021 03:08 pm