This fraud, say the cyber police, started last year and there could already be hundreds of cases across the country, most of them in the metros.
The police and cybercrime experts have warned flat owners to watch out before initiating a transaction and have urged them to try their best to check the credentials of those who approach them for renting apartments.
Explaining the modus operandi, a cyber police officer said, “Scamsters identify themselves as defence personnel to gain a potential victim’s trust. They even come on video, communicating with their target on WhatsApp video calls. They share what they claim to be their army (or any other defence force) ID cards, bearing pictures of them in uniform. After gaining a target’s trust, their playbook is as old as cybercrime itself: making the target reveal bank details, OTP, etc. Their pretext is transferring the deposit for the apartment or even the token fee.”
Nine months ago, the sales director of a private company lost Rs 98,000 after a man claiming to be a BSF officer contacted him online for taking his Kolkata flat on lease. Gaining the flat owner’s trust, the fraudster made him reveal confidential banking details telling him that he needed those to transfer Rs 50,000 as deposit.
The flat owner, Powai resident Sayantan Dasgupta (47), told Mumbai Mirror, “I had placed an ad on a housing portal to lease out my Kolkata flat. I got a call from a person who identified himself as Sachin Sharma. He told me he was looking for a rental home in Kolkata to move in with his family as he was being posted in Kolkata. As it turned out, he cheated me. The bank denied any fraudulent transfers from my account despite my complaining on time as per RBI guidelines. The bank should have easily tracked the fraudsters because the money that was siphoned off my account was credited to an account of a different branch of the same bank.”
Borivli resident Samip Patil, an engineer, lost Rs 49,500 to a fraudster who posed as an army officer. The incident occurred in March 2021, but Patil is yet to recover his money. “I insisted that the ‘army officer’ use an NEFT transfer for paying me, but he gave excuses, claiming that the bank was unable to operate such a transfer mechanism. He asked me to share my UPI details. To gain my confidence, he credited Rs 5. Then he asked me to scan a QR code so that he could make a money transfer. I told him I knew it was used to debit money, not credit it. But he explained that the army had a different method where money was sent using such a QR code. The moment I scanned the code, two fraudulent transactions were carried out from my account,” Patil told Mirror.
In another case from July 2021, a 66-year-old retired company executive from Powai was duped of Rs 3.97 lakh a day after he posted an ad on a housing portal for renting his Thane flat. The scamster, Zora Singh, claimed to be a subedar major and convinced the retired executive to transfer Rs 50,000 to Singh’s ‘Army Merchant Card Account’ for its activation before he was permitted to do transactions.
Cyber expert Ritesh Bhatia said if one buys or sells products online, one needs to be careful while dealing with people. “Do not trust someone because they show an army ID card. Meet the person at a public place to fix the deal. Be careful while accepting payments. Do not provide any OTP to the sender as he might use this to steal money from you,” said Bhatia.
In all of 2021, there was only one instance of the police retrieving the money a flat owner lost to the ‘apartment renting scam’. Powai resident Sujit Goswami (62), a retired civil engineer, was duped of Rs 74,500 by a person who posed as an army officer and gained his trust after expressing an interest to rent his Saki Naka flat. The Saki Naka police cracked the case.
Cyber lawyer Prashant Mali said the government should immediately put in place an online dispute resolution (ODR) system. He said that every month, around 80,000 instances of cyber fraud occur through the UPI route. The amount involved countrywide could total Rs 200 crore till now. Mali also blamed the state government for not yet implementing the cyber helpline 155260 to block, on request, money fraudulently transferred. Such helplines have already been activated in seven states: Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.
“It is ironic that Maharashtra and Mumbai have not been prioritised, given that most instances of online banking fraud occur here,” he said.