A fortnight after the government announced the scrapping of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes and restrictions on bank and ATM withdrawals, a Delhi resident received a phone call in which the caller, claiming to represent the bank in which he held an account, made him an offer he could not refuse. As a privileged customer, he was told, the bank was offering to remove the withdrawal limit imposed by the Reserve Bank of India after the demonetisation announcement on November 8. But for that to happen, his ATM card would have to be updated.

Taken in by the promise of unlimited withdrawals, the man, a company secretary with a leading furniture brand, willingly disclosed the one-time password sent to his phone. Within minutes of ending the call, the man realised that he had lost over Rs 1 lakh, withdrawn in multiple instalments.

This is not an isolated incident. The police are investigating 11 other cases reported in Delhi, Noida and Ghaziabad in the past three weeks. The victims include two professors, a retired Air Force officer, a media person and a retired additional secretary of the Lok Sabha. The amounts lost range between Rs 30,000 and Rs 1.8 lakh.

Investigators said this could be just the tip of the iceberg as a large number of victims are known to have approached banks directly, without going to the police. “What is surprising is that such well-aware persons could fall victim to such a con,” said a senior police officer who did not want to be identified. “It seems like a large-scale fraud and many cases are likely to emerge in the coming days.”

Without a trace

When the victims have the mobile numbers of the callers and transaction details are available as well, why then have none of the conmen been traced?

“It is not as easy as it sounds,” said Kislay Chaudhary, a cyber cell consultant to police departments in Delhi, Noida and Ghaziabad. “The calls in all 12 cases were traced to Jharkhand, mostly Jamtara and Dhanbad districts. In each case, the callers destroyed both the SIM cards and mobile phones used. So, zeroing in on them through SIM location or IMEI [international mobile equipment identity] code history was not an available option.” He also said that the documents used to procure the SIMs all turned out to be forged.

“On tracing the transaction details, there emerged a pattern,” Chaudhary added. “The cons first transferred the money to multiple eWallets, taking into consideration the limits associated with the same, and then transferred the money to multiple bank accounts, again taking into account the RBI-imposed withdrawal limits that would apply to them too. Later, they withdrew the money from each bank account as early as possible.”

When the police sought the know-your-customer details of these account holders from their banks, the documents submitted turned out to be forged as well, he said.

Phishing gangs at work?

According to a senior officer in the crime branch of the Delhi Police, the perpetrators may be members of gangs who get people to disclose the secret details of their debit cards and use these to steal their money. There have been several instances of such gangs operating in the Delhi-National Capital Region being busted in Jharkhand and Bihar, where they mostly work out of villages and remote locations. Some of them were found to have been operating over 200 bank accounts.

“Over the years, their success rate in big cities has reduced, owing to a certain level of awareness spread through banks – which send text messages to customers asking them not to disclose any details – and the media, which has often taken up issues related to cyber crime,” the officer said. “But the demonetisation exercise left people confused even in the big cities and that is what they have taken advantage of.”

Explaining their modus-operandi on the basis of solved cases, cyber cell consultant Chaudhary said, “They usually use one SIM card and mobile phone set for a day and make as many calls as possible, discarding them both when the day is over.” This ensures that the police cannot trace them from their last known location, he said.

In one of the 12 cases, Chaudhary added, the complainant approached the police within an hour of losing money. When an officer called the number provided, the person on the other end of the line admitted that he was in Jharkhand and that there was nothing the police could do to track him down.