Helpline fraud: Why an online search may be the best way to lose money

It happens when consumers seeking a solution to a problem do a Google search and call up any helpline number that it throws up; most do not bother to look up the organisation’s website or the papers they may hold to locate the official phone numbe...

Helpline frauds are increasingly the scourge of digital payments. Dozens of unsuspecting callers have been swindled after calling up fake helpline numbers placed online.

It happens when consumers seeking a solution to a problem do a Google search and call up any helpline number that it throws up; most do not bother to look up the organisation’s website or the papers they may hold to locate the official phone numbers.

Mumbai resident Ruchira Damia lost Rs 40,000 when she tried to contact an HP Gas agency. “I called HP Gas after getting its number on Google search. The customer care executive asked me to fill a link that they sent me. The moment I clicked it four transactions were carried out from my account and I lost Rs 40,000,” said Damia. She has filed a complaint with the police.

Methods used by confidence tricksters range from payment requests made on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) to sharing of QR codes on WhatsApp. And going by reporting of incidents with Mumbai’s cybercrime cell, scores of people are losing money because they called up numbers obtained through Google or Justdial.

Two developments have created an enabling environment for fraud—the explosion of smartphones with internet, and multiple modes of payment through apps.

Cyber expert Ritesh Bhatia said there are two ways fraudsters add a number under listings on a Google search page. They either create or claim a Google My Business account using their number, or ‘suggest’ their own number using the ‘suggest an edit’ feature. In either case, they are able to pass themselves off as, say, a liquor shop or a bank or a service centre. Google does a verification by post for Business accounts, but no physical verifications.

To make it easier for fraudsters, new forms of payments like UPI offer scope for confusion. Many are unaware that they do not need to share information in order to receive payments and that a UPI handle (xyz@abcbank) is enough to receive money.

According to Dilip Asbe of the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), the corporation is now working with online providers to weed out fake helpline links.

NPCI and banks are also pooling funds to spread awareness.

Sameer Nigam, founder of PhonePe, which contributes nearly a third of total UPI transactions in India, said, “A lot of platforms which are designed to be based on crowdsourced information or user-generated content are being taken advantage of by fraudsters. The companies are cooperative whenever we reach out with specific cases. However, what we want to see is more of a proactive approach from platforms like Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc in the detection of fraud.”

PhonePe has urged them to enable businesses to automatically take down false details and react in real-time in cases where fake information is being displayed, he said.

“All establishments should perform a search on Google and if their business has been listed without their knowledge, they must contact Google and get their listing removed or corrected. It is also recommended that all establishments get themselves listed on Google My Business before a fraudster claims it for identity thefts,” said Bhatia.

Google in response directed TOI to its blog, according to which it is a constant see-saw: when scamsters are shut down, they come up with new forms of deception. “But we can’t share too many details about these efforts without running the risk of actually helping scammers find new ways to beat our systems,” Google said. According to the company, it has taken down over 3 million fake business profiles––and more than 90% of them were removed before a user could even see the profile. Google’s internal systems triggered 85% of the removals and 2.5 lakh fake profiles were reported by users.

Fraudsters also manipulate individuals into divulging confidential information by tapping into social media. Information generated on social media platforms gives criminals a peek into a potential victim’s behaviour. To counter it, PhonePe has been engaging social media giants to take down fraudulent ‘user-generated content’ used as clickbait.

A Twitter spokesperson said recent initiatives have enabled it to act against scamsters who use phishing, or other fraudulent methods. “The policy is aligned to support the efforts of the government of India.”

Mumbai police cybercrime cell’s deputy commissioner Vishal Thakur said it is also incumbent on users to avoid looking for contact details of establishments through search engines. “Not knowing the authenticity of contact details found through a search engine, people get duped. If anyone is looking for customer care numbers to file a complaint or to place an order online, they should visit the webpage of the organisation,” said Thakur.




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