The Hyderabad police on Wednesday arrested a Chinese national and one more person in connection with a multi-crore instant microloan lending scam conducted via 30 mobile phone apps, which has pushed citizens in Telangana to take their lives, PTI reported. A total of 16 persons have been arrested in the case by the Hyderabad police so far, while the Cyberabad police have arrested at least six people.

The lending companies used mobile applications to offer instant loans to individuals at exorbitant interest rates. When someone failed to repay on time, the accused abused, harassed and threatened the defaulters. The Telangana Police said it received at least 90 complaints from such borrowers who were intimidated by the lenders later.

A crackdown was launched after three people died by suicide, after reportedly being harassed and humiliated by the money lenders for days. “They threatened to file FIRs, to lock his bank account, defame him,” said Ramya, the wife of one Sunil who died by suicide on December 16, reported The Indian Express. “He was worried all the time. To repay one loan, he took another, and ended up with over Rs 2 lakh debt.”

Investigations revealed the racket was operated through call centres that were run on behalf of four companies. These call centres employed hundreds of youngsters trained to lure customers, and entrap them into borrowing successive sums from through mobile apps. They were also trained to “abuse, defame and blackmail” victims in order to recover borrowed money and the interest, the police said.

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. Authorities conducted multiple raids at call centres in Hyderabad and Gurugram, and arrested 11 individuals on December 23. The Cyberabad police, meanwhile, had arrested six people.

On Wednesday, the police intercepted a 27-year-old Chinese national at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport as he was trying to leave the country. The police have identified him as the overall in-charge of the applications through which the scam took place.

Another person, a native of Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, who played a key role in operating the call centres, was also arrested, the police said.

A preliminary investigation into the financial transactions revealed that close to 1.4 crore transactions, worth nearly Rs 21,000 crore, were made through the loan scheme, the Hyderabad police said. The money itself was routed through shell companies, multiple bank accounts, payment gateways and digital wallets to avoid detection.

The police of Hyderabad, Cyberabad and Rachakonda in Telangana have written to Google to take down 158 instant loan apps from Google Play Store. Cyberabad Police Commissioner V C Sajjanar said they fear “thousands may be suffering the abuse and harassment silently, afraid to seek help”, according to The Indian Express.