The Hindu (Mumbai)

Caught in a growing web of deceit

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Telangana has seen over 6,500 cybercrime cases registered this January alone, posing a threat to public safety and causing heavy financial losses for victims. As cybersecur­ity efforts are stepped up by deploying AIdriven crime monitoring systems to detect, analyse, and counteract digital threats, Lavpreet Kaur and Naveen Kumar peel back the layers of the mounting menace

The offenders can be in any part of the world, accounts can be anywhere, and withdrawal of money can be made in any part of the world, so catching criminals becomes difficult SHIKHA GOEL

Director, TSCSB

On January 2, a 78yearold retired government employee residing in Bowenpally in Secunderab­ad received an unexpected call at 9.05 a.m. The call lasted until 2.30 p.m., and by then, he had lost nearly ₹1 crore from his life savings.

Online scammers — posing as agents of internatio­nal parcel services company, Mumbai Police Crime Branch inspectors, and CBI officers — had persuaded the man to prematurel­y encash his fixed deposit and transfer ₹98.79 lakh to a ‘special CBI account’, which was later found to have been in Jammu and Kashmir’s Baramulla.

“I was shown the transactio­n details this account had on January 2. It was five pages long, with about 25 names per page, on that day alone. While most transactio­ns were between ₹50,000 and ₹80,000, there were two transactio­ns of ₹1.20 lakh and ₹1.50 lakh from Andhra Pradesh,” recalled the victim Ramesh Rao (name changed).

Parcel scam, where intruders falsely use names of global logistics and delivery companies, preys on the victim’s fears. The perpetrato­rs begin a call by mentioning a ‘suspicious parcel’ containing items like drugs or passports associated with the victim’s phone number and Aadhaar card. To have their name cleared, the person is asked to provide statements via video calls and transfer funds into specified bank accounts under the guise of ‘verifying its legitimacy’. The process is carried out with such precision that people often end up parting with their money before realising they have been conned.

With forged FIR copies in his name and WhatsApp photos of CBIMumbai, Rao believed everything told to him. “When I asked the caller what to put under descriptio­n for the transactio­n, I was told to mention ‘real estate purchase’. I asked why I couldn’t mention CBI, but they said it was so scammers are not alerted,” he shared.

He made the transactio­n, but got suspicious the very next minute. He asked the caller to stay on the phone, stating that he needed to use the washroom. “I kept my phone aside, took my wife’s phone and called the manager of my bank. When I shared what had happened, he immediatel­y halted the RTGS transactio­n for ₹98.79 lakh. But within 20 minutes, I had lost ₹16 lakh. The rest of the money is frozen, and I am working on the legalities,” he explains.

According to officials at the Telangana State Cyber Security Bureau (TSCSB), located on the third floor of TowerB of the Integrated Command Control Centre (ICCC) in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills, 6,520 cybercrime cases were registered in January 2024 alone. These included 2,420 cases of identity theft, 1,938 of business and investment fraud, 913 of impersonat­ion (or cheating), 691 advertisem­ent portal frauds, and 558 loan frauds. The financial toll amounts to ₹88 crore. Between May and December last year, the TSCSB received 89,783 complaints, leading to 14,271 FIRs. To put matters into perspectiv­e, the State recorded 1,099 cybercrime cases in 2018, a number that surged to 16,339 in 2023, according to the Telangana annual roundup of crime.

Resembling a corporate office, the TSCSB operates roundthecl­ock in three shifts, with 32 techsavvy constables clad in maroon polo neck Tshirts bearing the bureau’s logo. While one section addresses distress calls and registers complaints, the data desk simultaneo­usly collates data, mapping and identifies trends.

Despite efforts to raise awareness, TSCSB Director Shikha Goel said not all incidents are reported. This underscore­s the sheer number of unreported cases, including those involving sextortion. “So far, we have been able to freeze amounts to the tune of ₹133 crore since its inception in June 2022. Over ₹11 crore was refunded to victims in 2023,” she added.

The landscape of cybercrime has undergone a significan­t transforma­tion, progressin­g from OTP and social media fraud to Artificial Intelligen­ce (AI) and a complex virtual network of criminals. Cases of deep fakes, exemplifie­d by a recent incident where the perpetrato­rs extorted ₹74,000 from a 76yearold man through a morphed video featuring the face and voice of a retired officer of Uttar Pradesh police, pose a serious threat.

Another problem for the youth is the advancemen­t and expansion of the virtual world. As if bullies and online predators on social media weren’t enough, the Metaverse has emerged as another unsafe space. As highlighte­d in a report titled ‘Metaverse: Another Cesspool of Toxic Content’, in May 2022, a 21yearold woman faced virtual sexual assault and harassment within an hour of entering the virtual environs.

“Where is the law to report such cases? And even if there are laws, what is the proof or evidence of where the crime happened?” asked Gaurav Sahay, Practice Head (Technology & General Corporate), Fox Mandal & Associates, a law firm. To deal with these cases, he feels laws need to take shape, and judges must be ready to interpret existing laws for current circumstan­ces.

Tracing and tackling cyber crime

In 2022, Telangana topped the cybercrime charts in the country for the second consecutiv­e year with 15,297 cases, a jump from 10,303 cases recorded in 2021, as per the latest report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

Goel said, “The offenders can be in any part of the world, accounts can be anywhere, and withdrawal of money can be made in any part of the world, so catching criminals becomes difficult.”

Besides, offenders use unaudited payment gateways, for which there are no means of verificati­on, leading to further complicati­ons. The movement of money is so fast that even a slight delay in reporting it to the police makes it challengin­g to trace it. When combined with the legal framework that is traditiona­lly tied to jurisdicti­onal limitation­s, it becomes even harder to track criminals and bring them to book.

Experts are divided in their opinions on compliance. Sahay said companies pay heavily for due diligence and compliance. “They pay penalties between ₹50250 crore in case of a data breach,” he added, calling for indepth, continuous regulatory sandboxing, the practice of isolating a programme from other programmes to ensure that if errors or security issues arise, they do not spread to other areas on the computer.

On the other hand, Supratim Chakrabort­y of the law firm Khaitan & Co. calls for harmonisat­ion, where strict regulation to counter cybercrime goes handinhand with the ease of doing business and innovation in the country.

Industry experts are betting big on the Digital India Act, 2023, which proposes specialise­d and dedicated adjudicato­ry mechanisms for online civil and criminal offences and the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023. “This will ensure we are fairly covered from the cybercrime­s of the day,” said Mitish Chitnavis, chief technology officer at cybersecur­ity company iValue.

The interventi­on of advanced technologi­es like AI and ChatGPT is making things worse, with deep fake cases taking off and offenders using those to hack into victims’ accounts.

The TSCSB has introduced an inhouse AIdriven crime monitoring system which picks up all the requisite informatio­n from the FIR directly and disseminat­es it to relevant stakeholde­r banks and police stations to promptly detect and investigat­e cybercrime cases in Telangana.

The department has also come up with an AIbased tool called ‘CyCAPs’, short for Cyber Crime Analysis and Profiling System. This maps crimes to criminal and criminal networks across the country. So far, 66,726 accused from various States have been identified across the country, including a case where 72 offenders were linked to over 9,000 cases in India.

 ?? REPRESENTA­TIVE IMAGE ?? Telangana recorded 16,339 cybercrime cases in 2023, while the number was only 1,099 in 2018, according to the Telangana annual round-up of crime.
REPRESENTA­TIVE IMAGE Telangana recorded 16,339 cybercrime cases in 2023, while the number was only 1,099 in 2018, according to the Telangana annual round-up of crime.
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