mid-day investigation: How online fraudsters trap their prey - A week inside a phishing centre

Updated: Feb 17, 2020, 13:37 IST | Shirish Vaktania, Diwakar Sharma | Mumbai

With 200 calls a day, monthly target to scam people of at least Rs 70,000, and incentive bash in Goa, this fake call centre we infiltrated works just like a corporate firm, with the only difference being it's fully criminal

Shirish Vaktania outside Stage Door Communication Private Ltd's Thane office on his first day at work
Shirish Vaktania outside Stage Door Communication Private Ltd's Thane office on his first day at work

Mumbai and Thane police busted six such call centres in Thane, Mira Road and Bhayandar in 2019 but the action clearly seems inadequate as they continue to flourish. The modus operandi involves offering needy citizens loans against an insurance policy at attractive terms.

As part of a week-long investigation, mid-day penetrated the system to bust a phishing company. Reporter Shirish Vaktania managed to get a job at a Thane-based company 'Stage Door Communication Private Limited' (SDCPL) that employs at least 300 people, including 200 callers and has a monthly turnover of Rs 1.5 crore. The company's callers target citizens across states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, etc.

Each day, hundreds of people fall prey to the network. Many don't approach the police due to the tedious procedures, and those who do are either turned away or made to run from pillar to post.

Going undercover

Vaktania's efforts to get inside the system began with him posing as an unemployed youngster in desperate need of a job. After passing two rounds of interviews, he was hired along with 11 other candidates. The group was trained to sell insurance policy for two days before being deployed as callers.

Phishing racket in the garb of call centre — SDCPL’s office in Thane. pic/rajesh guptaPhishing racket in the garb of call centre — SDCPL’s office in Thane. Pic/Rajesh Gupta

Callers offer loans in the name of Bajaj Finance, which has no clue about SDCPL. As Shirish became a known face at the call centre, serving staff revealed to him that the company is actually running a phishing scam by offering loans at zero per cent interest.

Operating via landline phones, each caller has to make 250 calls during a nine-hour shift. Like any corporate sales team, the phishing industry too offers perks.

Targets and perks

Each caller has a target of Rs 70,000 per month. A group of 35 employees who achieved a target of R3 lakh each in two months, were taken for a three-day trip to Goa last Thursday. A new target of Rs 6 lakh in two months promises a trip to Bangkok.

Interview, training, induction

Vaktania visited SDCPL's office at road no. 22, Wagle Industrial Estate, Thane West on Friday, February 7 at 3 pm for an interview. Two HR employees, Tejashree and an unidentified male, separately interviewed Vaktania, who said that he was told about the job by his friend, Diwakar Sharma. They tested his knowledge about insurance and asked basic personal details. He was hired for a 'sales job' at a monthly salary of R10,000 and told to report on Monday, February 10 at 9.30 am.

During a two-day training session, assistant manager Sagarika instructed trainees about the company's two products — insurance and holiday packages, calling process, identifying customers based on age, need, income and capability loans repayment.

"You must speak politely with customers. We accept payment via Google Pay and net banking. We send customers documents and get their signatures via WhatsApp. They are sent a receipt and insurance policy details via email or WhatsApp," Sagarika told the new recruits.

Stage Door Communication Private Ltd office at Wagle Industrial Estate, Thane West. PIC/RAJESH GUPTA
Stage Door Communication Private Ltd office at Wagle Industrial Estate, Thane West. Pic/ Rajesh Gupta

She claimed SDCPL has an IRDA (Insurance Regulatory Development Authority of India) licence, which authorises it to sell insurance.

On the floor

SDCPL did not allow employees to use mobile phones on the floor. The floor boasts of rows of callers, 20 in each, training room, HR cabin, sever room, backup office, a pantry and washrooms. The callers are managed by team leaders who give them targets and even take meetings where they abuse team members for low performance. mid-day caught one such senior manager abusing his juniors on a sting video. "Tumhari layki nahin hai ye kaam karne ki. Bahar jaake bhik mango isse accha," he is heard saying.
On Vaktania's first day 'at work', team leader Rahul divided the new recruits into groups and made them observe how callers work. While all callers are aware of the fraud, mid-day also learnt that police raids were conducted twice last month but apparently, the matter was 'managed with senior police officers'.

Incentives for crossing the R70,000 mark are credited to callers along with their salary. Caller Dhammadeep Awthare explained to a trainee how taking at least Rs 20,000, even if the EMI is higher, is enough, as according to him, "Ek da customer ne paise bharle ki to fasla" (once the customer pays, he is trapped).

To cover its tracks, SDCPL ensures its landline number cannot be traced. However, mobile numbers used to send and receive documents are traceable. At the end of every day, team leaders remove the batteries of all cell phones and take them home. The handsets are locked in an officer drawer to prevent callers from alerting the customers.

Gaining their trust

Shirish Vaktania at his desk on the floor of SDCPLShirish Vaktania at his desk on the floor of SDCPL

Callers ask customers to provide Aadhaar and PAN cards, citing legitimate bank accounts, and sending images of fake IDs that boast the name of Bajaj Finance.

"Bajaj Finance and Bajaj Alliance are different companies. Bajaj Finance only gives loans. I have sent you a picture of my ID card which also has the office's Goregaon address," Awthare is heard telling a customer. The untraceable landline numbers and a fake company address add to the callers' confidence while convincing customers.

"Why would we involve a bank if we were fraudsters? Sir, if you are not comfortable with online payments, we will send an executive to you to collect cash," said a caller on phone.

Customers are assured of a visit by a company executive to get documents signed. However, the executive turns up offering holiday packages, which is again, a farce. Calls by customers to raise questions either go unanswered or the response that the 'concerned executive has been transferred'.

Reporter's call list

Assistant manager SagarikaAssistant manager Sagarika

During a pep talk, a senior manager Namdeo motivated employees with the prospect of international holidays. "You must have understood now how to talk to customers. A bunch of us are going for a picnic to Goa. Team leaders will keep an eye on you. Approach people on phone, do not leave your desks. We will take you for a holiday to Bangkok if you perform well," Namdeo said during the meeting where he also explained incentive slabs.

On Friday, which was Vaktania's sixth and last day at the office, he called 250 people from a call list to generate business leads. Two customers who Vaktania spoke to — Jalindar Dighe from Shirdi who runs a dairy business and Anant Potraje, who runs a bakery in Pune — needed a R5 lakh loan and were willing to pay Rs 50,000. mid-day did not share their details with SDCPL.

The other side

mid-day reporter Diwakar Sharma, posing as a customer, contacted SDCPL on their mobile phone number on February 14. Sticking to the modus operandi, an employee, Reena, asked for a copy of the PAN and Aadhaar card, bank account details or a crossed cheque. "First we need to check if the loan can be granted to you," Reena told the reporter.

"This is a mortgage policy loan which means you purchase a policy and keep it mortgaged with Bajaj Finance as security. If Bajaj approves a loan of R5 lakh and I die in the next six months or one year, Bajaj Finance won't suffer a loss as it recovers the loan amount through the policy," explained Reena.

What Bajaj Finserv says

Bajaj Finserv used to be called Bajaj Finance. The Bajaj Group's Vice Chairman Sanjeev Bajaj told mid-day, "Our call centre is in Pune. It seems this company is defrauding people using Bajaj Finance's name. If there is evidence available, we will send our investigators to probe."

A video grab from the time when a senior manager verbally abused the team for ‘low’ sales
A video grab from the time when a senior manager verbally abused the team for ‘low’ sales

Bajaj Finance Ltd — Bajaj Finserv's Counsel, Babu Rao, said, "Bajaj Finserv never asks its customers for money. In the past, we have approached police against such scams. Our website also has a cautionary message about such fraudsters."

Bajaj Finserv has also come across fake websites which look similar to its own. SDCPL has the logo of Bajaj Finance as its display picture on its WhatsApp number.

"No complaint regarding SDCPL has come to us. Our Fraud Control Team will probe the company and accordingly a complaint will be raised," Rao said.

Caller with a conscience

One of the new recruits from Vaktania's group, after getting to know about the phishing scam, began calling his customers, alerting them to the fraud, instructing them not to pay the money and requesting to not reveal his name. During a conversation with the mid-day reporter, the recruit said, "Which company gives loan at zero per cent interest? They are fooling people. I will call more customers and alert them and leave this company after a month."

No. of callers at the fake call centre

No. of daily calls each caller makes

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