Kerala Technology
Police beef up network to curb online scams

Hari Sankar, who heads the Cyber Operations of Kerala Police, says educating the public is the key to preventing online scams. Photo: TikTalk Newsletter

Police beef up network to curb online scams

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on May 14, 2024
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on May 14, 2024

The cyber division of Kerala police says they have put together a network of fintech entities including banks, e-wallet operators, and e-commerce platforms to help scam victims recover their money.

The network is alerted when a victim files a complaint and the money is traced and blocked to prevent the scam operators from withdrawing it or funnelling it out of the country.

The system proved its worth recently as the officials were able to locate and freeze most of the funds of a victim who had transferred 1.40 crore rupees after getting tangled in an investment scam.

“If the money remains in the system, we can locate and freeze it. In this case, the victim had alerted us as soon as he smelt a rat, and the police could move before the fraudsters withdrew the money,” says Superintendent of Police Hari Sankar, who heads the Cyber Operations of Kerala Police.

“We have connected with 500 players in the fintech ecosystem, including banks, e-wallet firms, as well as intermediaries, and created a network to trace the money. When someone reports a crime, we send out an alert quickly and freeze the account to which the money has been transferred. In November, we issued a standard operating procedure (SOP) for that, and that system is now up and running effectively.”

He says the network can help only if the victims report their problems quickly. Some people fail to speak out due to the fear of being ridiculed, losing precious time. 

If the money gets transferred overseas, the local police will be unable to pursue the case further.

Countries across the world face the scourge of online scams, and it is a multi-billion-dollar industry now. In October 2023, a global study done jointly by the Global Anti-Scam Alliance (Gasa) and data service provider ScamAdviser estimated that scammers siphoned off 1.02 trillion US dollars, and only 7 percent of the victims reported their loss.

Several reports say Cambodia has become a nerve centre of cyber scam operators who lure people with high-paying job offers and force them to work on online scams. People who escaped from such places say they were held as prisoners and tortured to do the job.

Last year a Keralite was in the news after he returned from Cambodia and said he was held captive and forced to send out hundreds of scam emails by people who had initially offered him a job.

But with no evidence to back up such claims, there is very little police in other countries can achieve. Moreover, there is speculation that some of these claims come from people who had knowingly taken the job and later fell out with their employees.

While overseas players are behind a majority of the scams, they get help locally also. Police say around 50 Keralites, including women, work as agents of international criminal gangs based mostly in China and Cambodia. They use social media like Facebook and WhatsApp to befriend potential victims and lure them into various dodgy schemes.

The victims are usually paid some money initially to encourage them to invest more. This method is known as the “fattening the pig” scheme.

Police in places like Singapore are now working with banks to educate account holders about various online scams and in Hong Kong the authorities have established a platform that provides information about suspicious websites, phone numbers and other details to help the public.

Hari Sankar says the Cyber Operations division of Kerala Police solely focuses on the tech side, and other police divisions investigate the cases. He says their mission is to keep track of the new methods used by cybercriminals and develop ways to prevent crimes.

Kerala is seeing a steady rise in cyber scams with over 1,000 cases registered in the first five months of 2024 alone. Estimates suggest that the State loses a minimum of 15 crore each month to online fraud, reports Mathrbhumi.

While equipping law enforcement agencies with the needed technology is crucial, police officials say the best way to stop cybercrimes is to educate people about devious methods used by scammers.

With this aim, Kerala Police recently organised a webinar in conjunction with ten major banks to create awareness about online scams.

“We didn’t overwhelm the webinar attendees with technology. We provided them with information to show the irrationality that leads victims to fall for such scams,” says Hari Sankar.

To increase participation, Kerala police is now seeking RBI’s help to scale up the campaign and take it nationwide.

Kerala society is a fertile area for cyber criminals as a high number of elderly population rely on online transactions and are active on social media. Victims of crooked investment schemes are often lured through social media like Whatsapp or Facebook.

Another common ruse used by scammers is frightening victims into believing that their accounts have been linked to serious crimes. The callers pretend to be from law enforcement agencies or similar authorities and may even make video calls.

The webinar organised by the Kerala police aimed to help people recognise the red flags when they encounter such scams.

One example they highlighted was when callers who claim to be enforcement or tax officials ask for transaction details.

“Any investigator looking into such crimes should be able to see the record officially and know details like the amount involved and the date of the transaction. Moreover, enforcement agencies can ask the banks for details. There is no need to contact the customer directly for this,” says Hari Sankar.

Another clear signal is when such “officials” request for a fund transfer, either in the guise of safe keeping or as a penalty.

“No investigating agency in the country will ask for a fund transfer,” says Hari Sankar.

Police say when people get suspicious calls like that, they should immediately contact 1930, the number set up by the authorities to report cyber frauds and get help.

Police say Kerala is yet to see a major spike in AI-enabled cyber scams, despite a couple of high-profile cases. Some experts think voice cloning could be of greater danger in Kerala, as a large number of households consist of elderly people whose children are away, usually in some foreign countries.

Such people may go into a panic when they get scam calls and fall into traps set by crafty criminals. Security experts say anyone receiving such unusual calls should call back and confirm with the person or check with other sources before taking any action.

Despite global efforts to publicise methods of scam operators, cybercriminals continue to find vulnerable people to exploit. The victims are often educated and well-versed in cybersecurity measures, but they panic when they receive threatening calls or get lured by offers of unprecedented riches.

The recent case reported by Mumbai police, in which a retired executive of a multinational company lost 25 crore rupees, is a stark example of this. According to sources, the person was a banker with global experience but still fell for the fraud.



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