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How India Became the Land of Call Centre Scammers

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Hello, Your Computer Has Virus!

Starting this with a shoutout to an underrated Netflix show Jamtara – Sabka Number Ayega – based on the real-life incidents occurring in the city of Jamtara, also known as the phishing capital of India. The city earned this title because, in the near past there has been numerous incidents of phishing across the country whose centre point was in Jamtara, Jharkhand. Between April 2015 to March 2017, police from 12 different Indian states reportedly made 23 journeys to Jamtara to investigate cybercrimes – primarily phishing that were emanating from it. Involved individuals were said to have bought luxury SUVs and put fancy bungalows next to ramshackle cottages. Jamtara however, was only the beginning and this cunning inhouse talent of phishing and call centre scamming was about to go global and actually succeed not just in scamming a lot of foreigners, but also make the entire nation of India infamous for it too. On a global scale, online scamming accounts for over 50% of all financial cybercrime. Online scamming, precisely Tech Support Scam is a global industry that bleeds the victims off $47 Billion every year, affecting at least three out of five consumers globally. And stats show that 85% of these scam calls originate from India. In these centres, friendly call centre staff pretend to resolve a computer problem or sort out an issue with a customer’s account at a major company, all the while scheming methods to bag their own fill. Scammers usually succeed in bagging amounts, that people on an average make in a month, within a single night. Some veterans even go up to amounts usually made in an entire year. These scammers generally target people who are over 55 years old, not just because of their dumbness when it comes to tech but also that they are more gullible and lonelier. Few scammers have even confirmed that the reason why these call centre scams became such a hit is mostly because of the senior citizens living alone and having no one to enlighten them about internet safety. And India in recent years, has become the global leader in this global scale call centre scam industry, taking more than $1 Billion a year from the US alone. But how did India achieve this feat?

Indias Tech Support Scam Boom

India can be assumed to have one of the most sophisticated IT infrastructures that plays a huge role in the service sector growth. This same service sector contributes over 50% to the nation’s GDP. But in order to properly understand this cash cow of India, we need to go a little back in history. The origins of call centre scams in India can be traced back to the early 2000s, when the country’s growing IT and business outsourcing industry led to the development of a large and relatively low-cost labour force. Its about the era when most of the big tech companies we know of today, started to take birth. Most of these companies were from developed English speaking nations like US, UK and Australia. They required a cheap means of English-speaking professionals for their call centres. At that time, few entrepreneurs saw this golden opportunity and this led to the establishment call centres in India where foreign companies could run their customer support at a cheap and affordable price. As a result of this huge employment industry, Indians became more familiar with the latest technologies and infrastructures. Indian in turn, worked almost flawlessly in this field and soon the Indian Tech Support industry started getting global recognition. Other populated Asian countries like Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh followed suite and earned their own amount of popularity and growth. They would, at times, offer even cheaper outsourcing rates than that of India, which led to many huge tech companies shifting from India to other nations. This led to the destruction of the monopoly that India had maintained over the global tech support industry, which further led to many of these tech support employees losing their jobs and becoming unemployed. And this was what led to the agitated employees going the wrong way and with the possession of adequate knowledge, starting their own shady methods to make money.

These unemployed ex-tech centre employees knew how to set up call centres, how to talk to customers fluently in English and they even owned a ton of data on customers from foreign companies they once worked for. As a result, most of these scams run by shady institutions, set up by these individuals are usually masked with the name of official tech support. They bait customers into clicking random popups whenever a customer searches for a technical solution online. These popups then automatically redirect people to share their private information like phone number, email ID, customer ID, etc. to a different site via which they might be able to reach the official tech support and troubleshoot the query they are looking for. The younger educated generation who has a proper knowledge about the etiquettes of the Internet easily avoid these and shield themselves from scams but the older non-tech savvy generation, who do not have proper idea how important one’s data can be, usually end up falling for such traps. The common type of such traps being getting redirected to a shady site which is a 1:1 replica of the official site, where the customers are provided with toll free number of technicians. These scammers posing as technicians then use various tactics to persuade people to send money through various mediums such as debit cards, net banking, UPI, etc. Once they get hold of the money and before the customers realise that they have been scammed, the fraudsters disappear without leaving a single trace behind.

Are These Scammers Ever Caught?

It is already common knowledge that this type of scams is a growing problem, so why isn’t any sort of strict actions been taken against these? Well, to some degree the government has taken steps to address this issue by implementing strict regulations, increasing enforcement and taking legal actions against those

involved in these fraudulent activities. However, since most of these scams take place at the international level, the law is bound by a certain number of limitations as such:

  • Complex and ever-changing tactics – Scammers are constantly adapting their tactics and using new technology to evade detection and avoid prosecution, which makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to keep up with the latest methods being used by scammers.
  • International nature – Many of these call centres are based in India, but their target victims are usually from the US, which makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies in one country to prosecute scammers in another. This can also make it harder to track down the scammers and gather evidence.
  • Difficulty in tracking – Scammers often use VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) or other technologies that make it difficult to trace their location. They also use various other tactics to conceal their identities, such as using fake names, addresses and phone numbers.
  • Lack of resources – Law enforcement agencies often have limited resources, both in terms of personnel and funding, which can make it difficult for them to devote the adequate number of resources to catch scammers.
  • Limited coordination – The international nature of these scams further leads to the involvement of two different agencies from two countries who often operate independently on their own. This lack of coordination between agencies also makes it difficult to catch the scammers.

To overcome these challenges, law enforcement agencies are increasingly using advanced technologies such as data analytics and machine learning to track and prosecute scammers. They are also working with international partners to share information and coordinate efforts to catch scammers. In recent times, the establishment of a few new cybercrime units have been successful in tracking down scammers, one such unit based in Delhi had raided 25 scam call centres in 2020. This raid led to the disclosure of over 4500 US citizens having been scammed off a massive $14 Million in total. This however, is just a small portion of the iceberg above the water as majority of these international level scams go unreported and the money from them is never recovered.

Conclusion

Some of these fraudsters that have been caught are assessed to have robbed off billions of dollars from vulnerable customers and have gone on to purchase houses, jets and even pay incentives to their employees in lakhs. These people sure didn’t hesitate in the slightest in fattening their own pockets but they were also ignorant to the fact that their such actions would lead to the ruination of the country’s image as a whole. Just because of a few of these fraudsters’ actions, India today has a bad reputation all over the globe. Indians online are at times even bullied as a result of this bad reputation. India’s growing problem of unemployment is one of the factors responsible for this unfortunate outcome and several other developing Asian nations like Pakistan and Bangladesh have also followed in the same footsteps of India as a result of unemployment. This leads to further venturing into the subject matter and asking, “Who really is at fault here?”, as the helpless people had to turn to something in order to fill their bellies. This however, is in no way in support of the scammers but rather a broad perception into the subject matter. Lastly, it is important to be aware of the existence of call centre scams and to be cautious when receiving unsolicited phone calls, particularly when it involves personal information or money. It’s always better to verify any information before giving out any personal information or money.

By –
Dipankar Kalita
Diploma in Electrical Engineering Assam Engineering Institute

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