Death by Scam

A poor youth, a smartphone, and a virtual game of Kaun Banega Crorepati – the required ingredients to successfully dupe an already impoverished family out of lakhs of rupees

Video Report

This is the unfortunate story of Pavan, a naïve young resident of Chitrakoot’s Pahadi block who got scammed into playing a KBC-like game and ended up losing all of his family’s savings.

It all started in October 2015, when Pavan got a call inviting him to play a harmless sounding game called “Square”. The rules were simple – the participants would receive questions via text message on their smartphones, to which they merely had to reply with the correct answers. They all had a chance to win attractive cash prizes. “They were not tough questions. I got hooked on to it because it was pretty simple to play and also fun to reply back with the answers,” says a tired-looking Pavan today. Cut to 2017, and the day finally arrived when he got a call from their “customer service” saying his number had been chosen as the lucky winner of a car, a bungalow and 25 lakh rupees cash! Little did he know that this call, an alleged promise of an illusory prize, would be the precursor to his doom.

The next step was the first red flag – when Pavan was asked to pay some money so as to be sanctioned the prize. Faced with extreme poverty, with no other money-making avenues in sight, he and his unsuspecting family deposited the money as they were told. While Pavan took up a job in Imphal, his father had to take a loan of 1 lakh rupees. The family even ended up selling off their house in order to put together the necessary sum. As his father, Ram Vishwas puts it, “With great difficulty, we managed to deposit the required 3.5 lakh rupees. But when they asked us for another 36 thousand rupees, that is when I felt that something isn’t right. I told them I am a poor man and I work hard to feed my family – it is anyway difficult for me to make ends meet. But they made big promises. That’s all they did.”

The government’s clarion call for a Digital India – combined with a cut-throat competition amongst telecom companies to come out as the cheapest service provider – has ensured that every Indian is armed with a smartphone today. Be it an affluent industrialist or a roadside vendor, an urban office-goer or a poor farmer, we are all turning to our phone screens for everything, from our simple day–to-day errands to big decisions of our lifetimes. But this increasingly digitised economy, as it burgeons on in the global market, has little patience for the naivety of the uneducated, the underprivileged, and most importantly, the unemployed. Unaware of the dark underbelly of the internet, this is the section of the populace that falls prey to dubious get-rich-quick cyber-scams, the latter’s sole purpose being taking advantage of their dire circumstances.

As per Labour Bureau statistics, India is the nation with the most unemployed persons in the world, with jobs as well self-employment opportunities steadily declining as the population soars. The situation is particularly grim in rural Uttar Pradesh, where the rate of employment is at 5.6%, alarmingly higher than the national average. Chitrakoot district falls in UP’s Bundelkhand region – a region in shambles thanks to an illegal mining mafia as well  as a spate of relentless droughts. Backed by a thoroughly corrupt administration, multinational corporations are exhausting Bundelkhand’s mines unchecked – with no real employment opportunities being created as a result of the unregulated system. Such a state of despair has resulted in innumerable helpless, young men like Pavan – who are unemployed and strapped for cash – becoming vulnerable to schemes marketed as get-rich-quick/easy.

To make matters worse, the local police and administrative machinery is of no help either. Ram Vishwas tells us, “I tried to file a complaint in the police station and took this issue to the court as well – I have been to every police and government department possible. But we have received no help whatsoever!” Not only did the police refuse to register their complaint, they also allegedly called Ram Vishwas mentally unstable for parting with his money. What’s more, the police instead blamed them for not making a complaint earlier, before they had deposited the money. In a state plagued with crimes more horrific in nature, the U.P. Police is perhaps not to be blamed here.

The local MLA, Chandrika Prasad expressed his deep sympathy for Pavan and his family, but has no concrete solution or assistance to offer. “What has happened is very unfortunate. He has sold off his house and everything, and now his state is worse than that of a beggar. Had they informed someone before depositing the money, it possibly could have been saved. But they must have been told not to share the information with anyone. In any case, we’ll try our best to investigate this.”

This Khabar Lahariya article first appeared on The Wire.