The crackdown on an illegal telephone exchange last fortnight has led the Uttar Pradesh anti-terrorism squad to what they believe is an international espionage network.

The police have made 12 arrests in the case so far and are trying to find more leads on the alleged spies. The development comes days before Uttar Pradesh goes to polls starting February 11, in a high-stakes and electorally crucial election.

The purported racket came to light after a colonel with the Indian Army, posted in Jammu and Kashmir, received a call from a man claiming to be his senior. The colonel became suspicious after the caller asked him questions about sensitive information. When the officer reported the matter, it emerged that other army officers had also made similar complaints recently. The Directorate of Military Intelligence then started investigating the complaints, said a senior police official of the Uttar Pradesh anti-terrorism squad.

Lucknow link

The number from which the colonel received the call led the intelligence officials to Lucknow and they approached the Uttar Pradesh police. Investigations revealed that at least one of the numbers used to call officers was obtained using forged identity documents. The Uttar Pradesh police’s anti-terrorism squad and the military intelligence then roped in the Telecom Enforcement Resource and Monitoring cell, under the Department of Telecommunications.

A joint investigation by the three agencies helped track down the vendor who had accepted forged documents to give a phone connection. This led them to one of the accused.

On interrogating the man, they identified 11 others, who were arrested between January 23 and 25.

The 12 were involved in running illegal telephone exchanges, through which they would connect international callers to people in India at low rates.

“The Telecom Enforcement Resource and Monitoring cell was already on the lookout for such elements,” said Aseem Arun, Inspector General of anti-terrorism squad of Uttar Pradesh Police.

Of the arrested accused, four were running the telephone exchanges, while others were assisting them with different aspects of the operation.

Plot thickens

The police conducted raids at some of the premises from which these exchanges were being operated, in Delhi, Lucknow and some other cities (the police did not specify which) and recovered several laptops. These laptops had access to a number spoofing facility that could generate fake numbers that would flash on the recipients caller IDs. They also found 18 SIM Boxes that convert data calls to voice calls.

“SIM Boxes transform data calls into voice calls and the phone number that flashes on the receiver’s display is a local number” said Kislay Chaudhary, founder of Indian Cyber Army, a group of ethical hackers that assist in investigations into cyber crimes. Chaudhary said each SIM Box had multiple SIM card slots. The international caller would make a data call, which would be routed through one of the SIM cards on this device and would be converted to a local call. If the receiver had a caller ID, it would pull up the local number of the chosen SIM card.

For those who sought an additional layer of anonymity, the exchange had a facility to generate a spoof or false number. “The local number can be manipulated [changed on the Caller ID] with a spoofer,” Kislay said. “Such equipment is often used by phishing rackets which usually dupe people by extracting confidential details of their bank accounts pretending to have called from their banks.

Spying angle

Interrogations of the four who operate the telephone exchange revealed that the gang in India was in touch with players abroad, who would put them in touch with clients and customers, said Rahul Srivastav, Additional Superintendent of Police of the Uttar Pradesh police. “The bigger players are located in other countries,” Srivastav said. “They are the ones who get the clients and they are connected to several other gangs like the concerned one who provide the voice call to local call conversion service.”

One of these clients, the police suspect, decided to use this service and the anonymity it provides for espionage purposes.

“From preliminary investigation it seems that one of the spies came in contact with one of the big players in the telephone exchange scam,” said an ATS official who did not wish to be identified. “And the spy became a client to whom service was provided by the busted gang. Efforts are on to arrest the big players and unearth the suspected espionage racket.”

Kislay, of the Indian Cyber Army, said this case was alarming as it showed that devices such as SIM boxes and spoof calling facilities, that were so far confined to phishing scams and financial rackets, could also be used for activities that pose a threat to national security.