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Mumbai: Watch out, digital impersonation cases are on the rise

Updated on: 30 June,2023 07:57 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Diwakar Sharma |

Cops say well-known people including doctors, decorated police officers, business honchos, top corporate executives and journalists, are being targetted

Mumbai: Watch out, digital impersonation cases are on the rise

A WhatsApp chat by a scammer posing as a senior cop

Online criminal impersonation cases in which cyber criminals use Virtual Private Network (VPN) tools to dodge law enforcement agencies are exploding across India. Investigators told mid-day that initially Nigerian gangs dominated the digital space to run this racket, but of late, Chinese crooks have entered to mint quick bucks.

The scammers target well-known people  including doctors, decorated police officers, business honchos, top corporate executives, journalists, and others whose personally identifiable credentials like photos and names are available online.

The scammers have been creating fake social media accounts by stealing their personally identifiable credentials specially names and photos to cause them financial loss or reputational damage. “The ultimate goal of these cyber scammers is to make money,” said Ritesh Bhatia, a cyber expert.

How they work

Another cyber expert said cyber criminals create fake profiles of well-decorated police officers on Instagram and then start chatting with junior policemen to purchase vouchers for him and share the details.

Ritesh Bhatia, cyber expert
Ritesh Bhatia, cyber expert

“Since the scammer uses the photo of a decorated policeman on Instagram, the junior cop will not think twice before following the order given on the chat window. The junior cop is scammed if she or he purchases the online vouchers and shares the details with the impersonator, who later redeems the code for financial gain,” said the cyber expert.

There are many such cases of Mumbai-based influential journalists whose fake Instagram accounts have been created and the impersonators have started to follow a handful of genuine friends. After a few days, the impersonator - citing an emergency, demands online transfer of money. But most of such cases go unregistered as victims prefer to report fake accounts on Instagram due to lengthy work at police stations.

Few cases registered

“A total of 218 cases have been registered this year across Maharashtra in connection with digital impersonation,” said Sanjay Shintre, superintendent of police, Maharashtra Cyber Cell. Fast digitisation is paving the way for such crimes in India, but according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of 2020, the charge sheeting rate is only 47.5 per cent. In Maharashtra, only 27.1 per cent cases were charge sheeted in 2020.

Last year in September, the fraudster had created a fake Instagram account of BKC jumbo COVID care centre’s dean Dr Rajesh Dere, and demanded money from his social media friends. The fraud came to light after Dr Dere started receiving calls from people who were checking whether the doctor was really in need of money. The fraudster had demanded Rs 14,500 urgently, assuring them that he would return it next day. “

In a similar manner, the impersonators tried to demand money from people by posing as former minister and Shiv Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray and Mumbai Police Commissioner Vivek Phansalkar in 2022. This year till May, only five cases of digital impersonation have been registered in Mumbai; and no arrests have been made. “The scammers have been using Virtual Private Network (VPN) tool so that their actual location can’t be traced by the police,” Bhatia said.

WhatsApp also used

The impersonators also use WhatsApp as a tool. “One of the victims is a businessman of Silvasa and the impersonator had retrieved a photo of a top executive from their website and started to chat with the accounts department person on his WhatsApp. The person was asked to transfer money to a number given by the impersonator, but the person did not transfer the amount and preferred to cross verify the facts. The heavy financial loss was averted,” Bhatia added.

Shintre said, “Initially Nigerians staying in India were involved in such cases. The involvement of Chinese and Pakistani nationals can’t be ruled out. But since the impersonators use VPN tool, it is really difficult to ascertain their exact location.” An inspector, Sujitkumar Gunjkar, who has been heading the Cyber Cell in Mira Bhayandar Vasai Virar police, said the number of Chinese cyber crooks is larger than the criminals from any other country. Bhatia said, “It’s an Economic Cyber Warfare as such frauds have increased during the pandemic.”

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