In the latest case of cyber fraud, a Pune-based interior designer was cheated of Rs 36 lakh in a span of 12 days on the pretext of performing online “prepaid tasks” of following various social media accounts.
The 33-year-old woman, who heads an interior designing firm in the city, registered a complaint at the dedicated cyber crime police station of Pune City Police earlier this week.
The interior designer said between September 26 and October 7, she lost Rs 36.5 lakh to cyber fraudsters who first established contact with her through a phone messenger application offering her a high-paying part-time job.
On September 26, she was contacted by a person from an international number via text message claiming to be a representative of a company that helps people boost their social media following.
After the complainant agreed to participate, she was sent the details of an Instagram handle and was asked to follow the account. After sending the screenshot of the ‘task’ of following the account, she was sent Rs 225 via online transfer. To complete more such tasks, she was added to a phone messenger group.
After some initial tasks and raising the money paid for them, the complainant was told by another person, claiming to be from the same entity, that she had been chosen for a prepaid task. The person referred to these as “merchant tasks” for which she was asked to pay an amount before doing a task to get a higher return.
The complainant was first asked to pay Rs 1,000 and was given Rs 1,300 after performing the task. Similarly, she was paid a return of Rs 3,900 for Rs 3,000.
She was then asked to pay Rs 25,000, Rs 1 lakh, Rs 3 lakh, and Rs 5 lakh and to perform similar tasks. But on these occasions, she was told that the ‘system was down’ and she would receive the online transfers for these tasks one or two days later.
A day later, she was told her “performance score was low” and that she would neither be given new tasks nor receive the returns on earlier tasks until she performed more such “merchant tasks”. She was then asked to make multiple online transfers of between Rs 5000 to Rs 4 lakh for this purpose.
She stopped making payments only after realising that she was being cheated. By that time she had lost Rs 36.5 lakh in 18 transactions.
She subsequently approached the cyber crime police station and a First Information Report (FIR) was registered. Senior Inspector Minal Patil is investigating the case further.
How task frauds take place
According to data shared by the City Cyber Crime police station of Pune city police, they have received close to 170 complaints related to such task frauds since January this year. Over 60 cases have been registered as FIRs after preliminary probes, according to the police data.
In arguably the biggest such case so far with the City Police, a 69-year-old retired colonel of the Indian Army was cheated to the tune of Rs 2.4 crore in May and June this year.
In these task frauds, the victims initially receive messages offering money for performing tasks such as “liking” videos online and giving online reviews to businesses such as hotels. They are initially paid small amounts to win their trust — for example, Rs 100 per like to Rs 500 per review etc.
Later, they are told they have been “chosen” for a “higher level” task and are asked to pay a fee to receive ‘prepaid tasks’ that will get them higher amounts as returns. For example, for a ‘prepaid task’ for which the victim pays Rs 1000, he or she gets Rs 1500 in return.
The fraudsters start increasing the fee and lure the victims with higher returns. Finally, when the promised returns fail to materialise, and the victims realise they are being cheated, the fraudsters vanish.
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Investigations in the past have revealed that a majority of victims are highly educated professionals – from young IT engineers to elderly retired Army officers. The communications in many of these frauds are initiated on weekends when these professionals have time at hand.
The probe has also brought to light the involvement of cyber criminals believed to be operating from abroad, and a tier of criminals from India acting as middlemen and managing the network of fraudulent bank accounts opened in the name of labourers, workers, and farmers from various places. In these cases, most of the defrauded funds are used to purchase cryptocurrency making it difficult to track the fraudsters and seize them money.
In September, in an important breakthrough into a case of task fraud, the Cyber Crime Cell of Pune police arrested a payment gateway operator and an online trader who helped cyber racketeers convert siphoned money into cryptocurrency.