HT Rajasthan

Lost and found scam: Police tool used to defraud those looking for missing kin

- Karn Pratap Singh and Hemani Bhandari karn.singh@hindustant­ NEW DELHI

: After a tense, sleepless night, 52-year-old Markandey – a former security guard – received a phone call at 9am last November that soothed his broken heart. The caller told him that his 21-year-old daughter, who had been missing from their home in Sant Nagar in south Delhi for over 24 hours, was being tracked by the “Missing Persons’ Cell” of the Delhi Police that the caller was a part of.

He sympathise­d with Markandey, asked for his daughter’s photo and name, and resuscitat­ed a father’s dying hope.

What followed were two calls in a span of a few hours: “We are still looking for her, hold tight,” followed by “your daughter has exited Chandigarh in a car, we are following her – but we need money for petrol, you know how the Delhi Police is, send ₹8,000.”

Desperate as any parent would be to reunite with their missing child, Markandey pushed his doubts aside, and sent the caller ₹8,000 via a UPI transactio­n.

He nervously waited for a call, an update, his daughter’s voice from the other end of the phone. “We are still following her,” the man who had taken Markandey’s ₹8,000 told him twice.

By evening, Markandey’s calls went unanswered, and with that his hopes were crushed.

In another corner of Delhi, the same month, and under similar circumstan­ces, a missing minor girl’s parents paid ₹10,000 to the caller; and the father of a 30-yearold man sent ₹40,000 to the caller who said the police team was headed to Manali in Himachal Pradesh to bring him back.

The caller was not a police officer. The caller was never in Chandigarh, chasing Markandey’s missing daughter’s car; and was he never in Manali looking for anyone’s son.

The caller, Shyam Sundar Chauhan (38), was in a dingy, unkempt rented room in Mohammadab­ad in Mau, Uttar Pradesh, with a mobile phone, a few SIM cards, a stable internet connection and an exhaustive list of phone numbers of those looking for their missing family members – available to one and all on the zonal integrated police network (ZIPNet).

Since August 2023, Shyam had

allegedly called 904 families, of which he had duped at least 50, to the tune of ₹10 lakh, by posing as a cop, who was a part of the missing persons’ cell of the Delhi police.

“This man preyed on our weakness. I can’t explain in words how upset my wife and I were,” Markandey told HT.

Markandey’s matter reached sub-inspector (SI) Vinod Walia – who heads the missing persons’ squad of north district – just as he had settled into his 12x14 feet, cramped office in the north police district headquarte­rs in Civil Lines, on November 16.

The grieving father was at the police station to enquire about the calls, the caller, the Chandigarh chase, the petrol money – and his missing daughter.

Before Walia could find out how many families had been duped this mercilessl­y, he was summoned by deputy commission­er of police (DCP), north, Manoj Kumar Meena, on November 18. “He asked me if anyone from my team had taken ₹10,000 through UPI from the family of a missing minor girl in the name of tracing her to Dehradun and bringing her back to Delhi in a private vehicle,” Walia recounted to HT.

Baffled by the allegation, Walia vehemently denied it, and informed the DCP about how Markandey was defrauded in a similar way.

And then, just hours after meeting the DCP, a third family reached out to Walia. A man, posing as a

policeman, was seeking ₹10,000 for bringing back their missing family member from another state to Delhi. “I told them to send me the caller’s number. I made the call and asked this man which Delhi police team he belonged to. He refused to answer, then he abused me and cut the call... I had to nab him,” said Walia.

Two weeks later, the accused was identified, and then on December 6, he was arrested outside his favourite meat shop in Mohammadab­ad – 855km away from Delhi.

The fraud

By early December, a crucial change was made to ZIPNet, and the numbers of the family members of missing people was removed by the Delhi Police, the nodal agency. They were replaced with the names of the police stations concerned, names of the station house officers (SHOs) or the investigat­ing officers (IOs), and in some cases, the phone numbers of the IOs.

At first, Walia suspected that it was an organised cheating syndicate. As soon as police got hold of the phone number used to make the fraud calls, it was put on surveillan­ce, and the UPI ID where payments were made was also being tracked to see which bank account it was attached to.

“Through technical surveillan­ce, we found out that the calls were made from areas between Mohammadab­ad and Ranipur in UP’s Mau district,” Walia said.

Analysis of call detail records of the mobile number, obtained from the service provider, showed the number of the person the accused spoke to most often – 35-year-old Mohammad Ali, who ran a meat shop in Ranipur.

Modus operandi

Police said that while working in Delhi in 2022, Chauhan heard about his neighbour’s missing child, and how the family’s phone number was available on ZIPNet for public to help with tips.

“During interrogat­ion, he said that it was then that he checked ZIPNet and other government portals where details of missing people were uploaded and made visible to the public. He carefully read each case, their physical descriptio­ns, identifica­tions marks, and other details and then called the family member whose number was mentioned on the site, pretending to be a cop and seek money one way or the other,” said Walia.

On December 6 last year, a case under section 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was registered against him, after a complaint was received from Markanday, who had given him ₹8,000 last November.

“I am unemployed and relied on my savings to run the house. Losing ₹8,000 to a scamster has hurt us. It’s a lot of money for us. My daughter is back home, and now I am waiting for my money to come back,” said Markandey.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in Hindi

Newspapers from India