I almost lost money to a scam early this week!

This post is going to be an extremely long one but I felt it is important for me to write about this. I have added anchor-links to help you jump to the section that you like.

Contents

1. The Story

2. Points that triggered suspicion

3. Some after-thoughts

4. How to avoid getting scammed?

5. How to report such incidents?

6. Conclusion

The Story

I have an apartment in another city that I had rented out and my tenant recently vacated. I have been trying to look for a new tenant through contacts but it wasn’t being helpful. We were not getting to many interests and those who visited were also asking for a lower price point quoting Covid situation. I decided to place an add in one of the most commonly used sites in India for real estate.

I got a call within 5 minutes and I was surprised but also happy that the site is working. The person got some basic details about rent, maintenance, location, distance from army camp etc. I gave him the details. He followed up by asking for pictures and videos of the apartment which I shared as well.

The next day, I got a call from him and he wanted to go ahead with the property and asked me about the token advance amount to confirm the booking. He has not seen the apartment yet. He said he has seen the video and that is enough. I asked again about the rent and maintenance amounts and if he is okay. He said he is okay with that and pressed again for token advance amount and that he will send his ID proofs for agreement document. He was an army personnel and had shared all the id cards as a proof. I felt this was going too fast. When asked again if he doesn’t want to look at the apartment before this, he said he is in a different city and got transferred, so he can’t visit the site but his family is okay based on video I sent. He asked again about token advance amount and he will send it via Google Pay or Paytm and once I receive I have to confirm the receipt. He also wanted the agreement to be for 2 years instead of a standard 11 month.

At this point, I felt something was not right. I told him I will confirm by evening and not to send anything. I started googling his name. Interestingly, I landed on a website where someone had complained that he is a fraud. On further digging, I found that scammers are using this profile to scam people and trick them into paying money. Usually, they operate on sites where people resell their products (like Olx, quickr). Recently, they have started scamming people on real estate sites. The details are listed in the below link

Scammers posing as army personnel and defrauding people

What could they have done? In my case I believe they might have

  1. “requested” for money instead of sending money. And asked me to confirm by entering the pin which would have transferred my money to that scammer’s account
  2. Sent a QR code as receipt and asked me to confirm by scanning the QR code. The QR code might have been a request for payment.

I was lucky to not fall prey to this scam. But it also scares me how many people can lose money if they are not careful.

Points that triggered suspicion

Following are some of the points that triggered suspicion and made me search the internet.

  1. I got a call within 5 minutes of posting the ad. Which could be genuine but very rare for some genuine seeker to be looking at the site when I exactly posted.
  2. He was agreeing to do the agreement without seeing the apartment.
  3. There was absolutely no negotiation. So far, everyone has been negotiating at least one thousand rupees and there were lot of empty flats in the society which were priced lower than mine.
  4. Too much emphasis on paying token advance when I had not talked about it even once.
  5. Moving too fast and deciding within 12 hours without seeing the property. He created a sense of urgency.
  6. Sharing all the ids readily without asking. Not one but all the different ID proofs.

Some after thoughts

Here are some the things that came to my mind about this whole episode

  1. Social Engineering: The scammers are well versed in social engineering. They understand the psychology of a common man and try to lay a honey trap. In my case, they knew a psychology of a owner. No negotiations, talking about payment of money, trying to build trust by showing they trust you by just seeing the video, talking about family members including kids, trying to show that they are here for long term by asking for the agreement period to be 2 years instead of 11 months. Even before transferring the token amount, he was trying to ease my mind by saying I may have to confirm the payment after he transfers.
  2. Social approval: Generally there is a huge respect for army and army personnel. Using this, the scammers posed as an army personnel who is being transferred. To make me trust further, they shared all the ids of an army personnel which are probably doctored – Aadhar card, Pan card, Army id, Army canteen id, and voter id. There were also questions like how long is it from the army camp. His WhatsApp DP had a picture of Indian army uniform and accessories.
  3. Access to the sites: He had access to the sites where lot of people communicate regularly. There is no way to verify each and every single user account in such platforms. But the sheer volume of users will help such people. Even if they are able to scam one in a thousand, he can still be profitable. And the amount are not huge amounts and people may generally don’t file a police complaint. In India, data privacy has a long way to go. If you need to buy anything in any shop, the first thing that they ask for is your phone number. Currently there are talks of data privacy policy being in discussion and hope it will improve over time.
  4. Online Payments: The number of scams have increased with the progress made in digital payments. Payments are now made easy with a click of a button from your mobile. While technically the payment apps and banks can implement security, there is no way to control or train the user behaviour or their emotions.

How to avoid getting scammed

What are some of the things that we can get to avoid getting scammed? While it is not fool proof, keeping these in mind may significantly reduce the risk.

  • Be Aware: It is a generally a good idea to be aware of what’s happening and what kind of scams are happening. Scammers get better each day and only way to keep up with them to be aware of what’s happening around. You don’t have to panic reading every news about scams but it is good to be informed.
  • Trust your intuition: Your intuition is your greatest strength. Trust your intuition and if it says something is fishy, follow up and check on that. Many a times, we tend to dismiss our intuition as a negative feeling. Following it up on your intuition may help you majority of the times.
  • Use logic: People are emotional beings. When taking decisions or discussing deals, especially with strangers, always use logic and not emotions. Don’t get excited that you got a good deal but question why is it so good? What is in it for the other party? Scammers feed your emotions and make you follow their line like a Pied Piper. Question everything to understand.
  • If something is too good to be true, it probably is: When something is too good and you feel everything is going your way and things are sailing smooth, it probably is too good to be true. Don’t be greedy. Don’t get excited that you got a good deal. If you feel that deal was a steal, probably you will get something stolen.
  • Don’t let your guard down: Always keep verifying. There is a famous line in Information Security space – Trust but verify. Don’t let you guard down and always be vigilant. Or you could get knocked out.

How to report such incidents?

Finally, it is also important to report such incidents to appropriate authorities so that others don’t get scammed. Reporting such scams, especially when you didn’t fall for it, may seem unnecessary. But it may prevent many other people from losing their hard earned money. How can you report Cyber Crimes or phishing in India? The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs has a National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal to report such incidents. In addition to that each city or district Police Departments may have their own Cyber cell where you could report such issues. For example,

Nagpur City Cyber Cell

Pune City Cyber Police

Mumbai Cyber Cell

Please check your local Cyber Cell to report such issues.

Conclusion

Please be aware that neither everyone is this world is good nor everyone is bad. The cases of online scams and frauds are increasing and particularly now people interacting virtually to get most of the things done. Be vigilant and avoid getting scammed. Even if you lose money due to a bad day, report it to appropriate authorities.

Stay safe. Stay healthy.

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