We are still witnessing the havoc wreaked by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. With the scarcity of life-saving drugs, medical oxygen and hospital beds, unlikely heroes have emerged from the most unlikely places. Termed as "Social media warriors", thousands of Indians have been seen using their social media outreach to collate information and connect people to essential resources. With approximately 448 million Indians using social media, websites/ apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp have proved to be critical in saving countless lives.
And even in an unprecedented, life-threatening situation such as this, we have seen that cyber-criminals have not been far behind, by cheating vulnerable people and extorting money by pretending to be COVID-support groups on social media websites.
INSTANCES OF COVID-RELATED SOCIAL MEDIA SCAMS
A few shocking instances of scams on social media are exemplified below:
- Money extortion: A profile on Facebook under the name of one "Ajay Agarwal" fleeced a Mumbai resident of INR 180001. The scammer was posing as a "distributor" of Remdesivir injections and assured to deliver 6 injections in return for advance payment. After the money was transferred, the scammer stopped responding and blocked all incoming calls;
- Stealing personal information: Another scam was the circulation of fake free COVID vaccine registration services over WhatsApp and SMS. These messages were found to contain a malware link which had the ability to steal personal information and breach the security of the device2;
- Misleading advertisements: The medical and pharmaceutical industry is currently grappling with an exponential rise in COVID-19 related counterfeits circulating in the black market. This is being aided by fake ads on social media websites for medicines, injections and medical equipment;
- Fake Profiles: Hordes of profiles on Facebook/ Instagram with zero to no followers are posing as doctors and advertising "verified" leads for medicines and oxygen, which are later being found to be fake;
- Donations and Charities3: Fake requests for charitable donations have been reported on various social media websites. Cyber-criminals are now hacking social media accounts and contacting people from the friends lists of the hacked accounts to ask for monetary help (thereby appearing genuine to those at the receiving end of the scam);
- Sexual Harassment: Not surprisingly, women have once again become the target of harassment and unsolicited attention on social media. Women who have reached out for help from their social media accounts have been the subject of spam calls, lewd comments and crude photos. Unfortunately, this has also become a recourse for jilted lovers/ stalkers to harass women by sharing their personal contact information on COVID support groups.
Victims of such social media scams have had difficulty in availing legal recourse and securing justice owing to complex jurisdictional issues4. For instance, a victim located in Jaipur was duped by a scammer located in the NCR region. Upon filing an FIR with the Delhi Police, he was informed that he should in fact file a complaint with the Rajasthan Police. However, he was later informed by the Rajasthan Police that since the phone number of the scammer belonged to Jharkhand, the jurisdiction of the complaint would lie with the Jharkhand Police.
In any case, the victims, already burdened by urgent medical requirements, do not even register a criminal complaint, thereby allowing the scammers to get off scot free in a majority of cases.
What do Numbers Speak?
In a recent newspaper article in the Indian Express5 it was reported that as of May 2021, the Delhi Police has registered 372 FIRs and arrested 91 people involved in cyber frauds, including on social media websites. The Cyber Crime Cell of the Delhi Police has even launched 'Operation Cyber Prahaar' to curb frauds and nab scammers who cheat people in need of oxygen and life-saving drugs. As per the data published by Delhi Police, the cyber cell teams have blocked 214 bank accounts involved in these cases and frozen a sum total amount of INR 53.60 lakh as of May 2021.
PREVENTION AND COUNTER-ACTION COVID-RELATED SOCIAL MEDIA SCAMS
Social media scams can be nipped in the bud by (initially well-meaning) third party users not "verifying" suspect posts as legitimate sources (without at least conducting brief due diligence) from the get go. As per Mr. Rachit (founder & CEO of Avenue Growth), who has assigned 35- members of his staff to provide verified information and created the platform "We Will Win" to combat COVID-19, a two- step verification process should be conducted for COVID-leads on social media websites6:
- Calling the listed phone numbers to verify availability and price;
- Request for official email address, bank account details as well as photographs of the stock to verify authenticity.
Other steps that may be taken to prevent the perpetration of such social media scams include:
- Match the location of the social media listing and phone number;
- Avoid transferring money to personal bank accounts;
- Check social media activity of organization/ individual. No activity or social media presence could be a possible scam;
- Avoid submitting personal information on social media;
- Report any instances of fraud or suspicious online activity.
Social media is revealing itself to be a powerful tool for people who require immediate medical assistance. These small steps will go a long way in ensuring that cyber-criminals do not profit off the vulnerabilities of people and help keep social media a safe space where people can work together to combat the virus.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.