Cyber fraudsters are taking a new route to work with their associates in foreign countries and simultaneously hide money trails: Cryptocurrency. Amid a debate around the legality of the digital currency and calls for regulation, officers in the Delhi Police’s Cyber Crime Unit are finding cryptocurrency fast becoming a means for illegal transactions, posing myriad challenges for investigating agencies.
According to senior police officers, scamsters dealing in cryptocurrency have three modus operandi — running fake call centres, using Chinese apps to defraud people, and gift card scams.
In July, police busted one such fake call centre when they caught four men from Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh, who allegedly cheated people on the pretext of giving them loans and converted that money into cryptocurrency. Police said the accused were inspired by a YouTube video and approached a Chinese national on Telegram, who was also involved in online loan cheating, to learn how to dupe people. They then approached people with an online loan offer and got them to deposit anything between Rs 40,000 and Rs 1 lakh. DCP (Rohini) Pranav Tayal’s team found the gang members using a BMW car, which was bought with that money, and that one of the accused is involved in a Rs 1-crore cheating case.
In the last year alone, the IFSO unit arrested 87 people in fake call centre cases. Senior officers at the Cyber Crime Unit said that in a majority of such call centres, the accused dealt in cryptocurrency.
“At present, we not only have to catch cyber criminals but also recover the money. It becomes difficult at times because these men have multiple bank accounts, e-wallets, gift cards, where they hide money. Also, with cryptocurrency, it’s a challenge to link an account to a person because the transactions are anonymous. Most of the money is sent to offshore accounts in 1-3 days. Once sent, it can’t be recovered,” said a senior police officer at the Cyber Crime Unit.
“With bank transactions or online payment systems, it’s easy to detect the money trail and we can also freeze transactions and recover money at times. However, crypto is fast and we don’t know who the end receiver is. One doesn’t need as many IDs or documents to set up a crypto wallet,” added the officer.
Over 50 cases have been reported this year where Delhi-based fraudsters were caught posing as directors or chiefs of agencies and cheating senior citizens/government officers under the guise of buying gift cards and converting these to cryptocurrency.
The gangs would use photos of top cops from Delhi Police or other state forces and message their subordinates, asking for instant gift cards. They would usually ask them to buy two-five cards worth Rs 5,000-Rs 10,000 each.
“It’s a tricky situation. These gangs are smart. They use phrases such as ‘don’t call me, I am in a meeting’ or ‘do this urgently’. They understand the hierarchy system in agencies. A constable/SI-level officer would not say no to a DGP-level officer, and would buy cards without calling/confirming. The cards are immediately converted to crypto,” said an officer.
The Cyber Crime Unit also found that the accused were posing as directors from AIIMS, Safdarjung and other reputed hospitals and fleecing ‘subordinates’. In some cases, they posed as principals of Delhi University colleges, cheating people to the tune of Rs 30,000-Rs 50,000.
Made in China
In April, the Cyber Crime Unit arrested eight persons from Delhi, Rajasthan and Haryana and busted a multi-crore cheating and extortion syndicate. Police also identified three Chinese nationals who are part of the syndicate. The accused created a bogus loan app and lured people to install it to secure easy loans. However, the accused would steal personal information from the devices of the victims and harass or threaten them.
The matter came to light when a woman complained that people behind the loan app morphed her photo and extorted money from her. A team led by ACP Raman Lamba caught the accused within a month.
“One of the accused, Rohit Kumar, was caught with Rs 8 crore; others were caught with three high-end SUV cars. The accused were running a multi-crore scam. Within two weeks, the cheated amount (Rs 8 crore) was converted to crypto. They were threatening their targets and would extort as much money as possible. In this gang, the accused in India would send their money to associates sitting in China/Dubai, who would convert it into crypto and pay everyone,” said DCP KPS Malhotra (Cyber Crime Unit).
Police said most of the accused in the Chinese app case and other scams are graduates who lack job experience or training. “It has become easy for criminals to learn the tricksof online cheating. There are videos online and one can approach foreigners. Also, many of the gang leaders worked with one-two gangs to learn the trade,” said an officer.
In the face of such new challenges, Delhi Police are now alerting investigators to closely look at phones, and specifically crypto apps, whenever a fraud accused is arrested. While most of the crypto platforms are being used illegally in India, officers have been asked to keep a “sharp eye” on criminals and recover cheated money at the earliest.
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In a recent fake international call centre case cracked by the Crime Branch, 18 people were allegedly defrauding US nationals by posing as officials from the US government grants department. Officers are now looking into the crypto wallets of the main accused and his associates, who were caught with a BMW and an MG Hector car.
A team led by DCP Vichitra Veer and ACP Abhinendra Jain raided a house in Mundka and found over two dozen tele-callers and main accused Nitin Singh. The team later found that Singh owns properties in Delhi-NCR and high-end cars. DCP Veer said, “The owner and tele-callers were caught on-site with devices. They bought data of US nationals from vendors. The callers would pose as US officials and call American citizens offering education schemes, and those who agreed were asked to pay a registration fee of $200. Two men have been arrested and 16 persons apprehended in the case so far.”
An officer added, “We are now verifying the cryptocurrency angle. Singh and his associates used expensive software to run the gang and were buying data from vendors. We suspect the money was being sent using crypto as well.”