The Hyderabad and the Cyberabad police have arrested 17 people in connection with an app-based instant microloan lending scam, The Hindu reported on Wednesday. The police arrested 11 people from Delhi and Gurugram, six others from Hyderabad, and also registered 23 cases against the instant loan companies.

The scam came to light after three people killed themselves in the past few weeks following alleged harassment from the debt collectors of these companies. The Hyderabad police then conducted raids in Hyderabad and Gurugram and arrested the officials of Liofang Technologies Private Limited, Hotful Technologies Private Limited, Pinprint Technologies and Nabloom Technologies Private Limited. All these companies are registered in Bengaluru.

Several call centres were set up in both Hyderabad and Gurugram, from where callers harassed the people who had taken loans. More than 1,000 people were employed in three such call centres, the police said, adding that they earned between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 a month.

The Cyberabad police, meanwhile, had arrested six people, including Sarath Chandra – an engineer with a degree from the US who ran two companies for money-lending operations. Chandra was the CEO of Onion Credit Private Limited and Cred Fox Technologies Private Limited, and also developed and sold loan apps to companies in Bengaluru, according to NDTV. The mobile apps included those such as Dhana Dhan, Cash Mama, Cash Up, Cash bus, Mera Loan and Loan Zone.

The Telangana DGP’s office said that at least 60 such loan apps were available on Google Play Store, and were not registered or recognised by the Reserve Bank of India.

The police have frozen 75 bank accounts that held around Rs 423 crore in connection with the scam. Officials said that the scam involved about 30 mobile apps, and the companies charged as much as 35% interest.

The complainant who led to the Cyberabad police action said that he had availed a loan of Rs 30,000 over eight months. Though he had received only Rs 20,000 after deductions, he had ended up paying Rs 29,000. But the loan was not cleared even then and he was told to pay Rs 8,634 more, the complainant said. He said that the companies began harassing him and his family members.

Cyberabad Police Commissioner VC Sajjanar said that the companies divided the customers into different buckets and practiced different methods to recover the loan. “Lesser the day after the due date, lesser the treatment, otherwise treatment will be very harsh, threatening and abusive,” he said. “They also access the contacts of relatives and friends of the customers and send them WhatsApp messages defaming the defaulter.”

Officials have also identified links to China and Indonesia, according to The Indian Express. “These callers took instructions from their heads in Indonesia,” Hyderabad police Commissioner Anjani Kumar said. “The entire operation of these loan apps appears to be run with Chinese nationals at the helm. This was also indicated during an investigation into the multi-crore colour prediction gaming app scam where crores of rupees were transferred to shell companies which were registered as NBFCs.”

The Reserve Bank of India on Wednesday cautioned people against falling for such loan apps. “These platforms charge excessive rates of interest and additional hidden charges, adopt unacceptable and high-handed recovery methods and misuse agreements to access data on mobile phones of borrowers,” the central bank said.