Perhaps it was an innocuous missed call that piqued your curiosity. Or a text message with a simple 'Hi!' that drew you in.
Before diving deep into the story, here is a question: Did you, or someone you know, recently receive a missed call or a text from an unknown overseas number?
If yes, you, or your friend, is one among crores of Indians who have received such a missed call. You are fortunate if you haven't lost money or suffered mentally after receiving a missed call or message.
The central government took notice of the influx in such calls, or messages, and issued a warning to WhatsApp the other day. A probe into such missed calls revealed a new-gen fraud called 'Telegram pre-paid task.'
It swindles crores of rupees from credulous people almost daily.
Unlike other cyber fraud cases, the new scam has a complex structure that allows the perpetrators to remain anonymous and undetected, and even insulated against attempts to track them through bank accounts.
Online Squid Game
Some of you may be familiar with Squid Game, a Netflix dystopian survival K-drama series. Hundreds of cash-strapped players — 456 to be precise — receive an invitation to compete in a children's game. Tempting prizes, including $3.5 crore for the winner, are on offer.
However, there is a catch. Death awaits those who lose the game. Masked guards who do not know each other control the game, supervised by an individual known only as Front Man.
The 'Telegram pre-paid task' has many similarities with the Squid Game. Indians who fell prey to scamsters include software engineers and even judges. An instance of one person losing Rs 52 lakh, too, has been reported.
An IT employee in Telangana committed suicide two weeks ago after he lost Rs 12 lakh kept aside for his sister's marriage.
From missed call to crypto!
(This is prepared based on information provided by hundreds of conned people. Though the scam's basic structure is the same, the methods employed might differ).
Step 1: "Hi" on WhatsApp
The greeting, "Hi," from an unknown overseas number (example: +880-1762-631452) is followed by a part-time job offer in a marketing or HR firm. If you respond, you are promised Rs 4,000 to Rs 8,000 per diem.
The job is simple: Subscribe to YouTube channels, 'Like' videos or review hotels. The YouTube channel's name will be forwarded to you. Your task is to subscribe to the channel, take a screenshot, and forward it to the number provided. On completing three tasks, Rs 150 will be paid.
To get the money, you should contact the 'receptionist' with a specific code.
Step 2: 'Receptionist here'
The code should be sent to the receptionist on Telegram. Once the bank details are provided, Rs 100 will be credited to your account. However, it is bait to win your trust and thereby make you poorer by lakhs of rupees.
Receiving money without making any investment impresses even those who are suspicious. Once the scamsters feel that you have taken the bait, you will be added to a Telegram group and will be given 25 to 30 tasks daily. The reward is Rs 25 to Rs 500 per task.
YouTube channels will be forwarded to you every hour, and money, at the rate of Rs 200 and Rs 250, is credited to your account on the completion of three tasks. Unknown to you, greed will gradually grip you.
Step 3: Pre-paid task
Next is the pre-paid task. You have to transfer Rs 1,500 online to them, and your account will be immediately credited with Rs 1,901, an increase of 40 percent. You may initially be hesitant to put in your money, but evidence of others getting money will be posted in the group. Still, you will wait for YouTube tasks that require no payment.
One of the conditions to get money is that you should complete three back-to-back tasks. Since you haven't paid them the money, you will gradually be getting fewer back-to-back tasks. It forces you to try the pre-paid tasks, and you reluctantly approach the receptionist.
Once you deposit Rs 1,500 to the account provided, you will receive Rs 1,901. It makes you trust them.
However, you are the only human in the 20-member group. The remaining are all the scamsters' fake profiles, and their job is to lure you into paying money. The group will have a number as well. It is your identification number.
Step 4: 'The teacher in VIP group'
Once addicted, you will be tempted to deposit even up to Rs 30,000 into various accounts. None of the accounts belong to the scamsters.
Instead, it belongs to several others playing in other groups. The same method is used to credit money into your account. The initial transactions made through a money-chain-like process are intended to win over your trust.
Later, you will be added to a four-member exclusive VIP group, where a 'teacher' will take charge of you. Except you, all three others in the group are fake.
The rewards are more in the VIP group. However, all four members should complete the tasks together to get the money.
If anyone drops out, you will lose the money deposited till then. You should also register on a fake crypto site as well. Once registered, all the money you have deposited will reflect on the site.
Step 5: "You got it wrong!"
The first task will be to deposit Rs 60,000. Simultaneously, you have to complete a few tasks from the fake crypto site, too, within a few seconds. Till now, you have been provided savings account numbers. Now onwards, you have to deposit money to current accounts.
The scamsters don't own the accounts. They buy or hire current accounts. If the accounts are tracked, those who had rented them out will be trapped — not the scamsters.
During the second task, the teacher will flag a mistake, saying it has angered the merchant who provides the money. The three fake profiles will assert that they have not gone wrong. You will be responsible for the mistake.
In fact, they are confusing you. They will also cuss you since they too have "lost" their money! You will be remorseful since you are "responsible" for their loss.
The teacher will intervene at this moment with a solution. Depositing Rs 1 lakh in a 're-payer task' will help in getting the money back with a bonus. Since the crypto site promptly updates your investments, you won't suspect any foul play.
You will even borrow money to invest further in whatever tasks they tell you, hoping to recover the loss. After a certain stage, you will realise that you won't get the money back. They will even oust you from the Telegram group and delete all conversations at both ends. And they disappear without a trace.
Step 6: Converting cash to crypto
The fraudsters' next step is to take the cash in the current account out of the banking network.
To achieve this, they will hire several people in the guise of providing part-time jobs. Their task is to help convert the cash to cryptocurrency.
The scamsters will divide the ill-gotten money in current accounts into smaller amounts and transfer them to the part-timers' savings accounts.
The next step is to convert the money transferred into bitcoins. They do it through cryptocurrency exchanges like Binance.
Once the bitcoins reach the fraudsters' crypto wallets, the money leaves India forever. Remember, they made all transactions using bank accounts. Even if there is an investigation, it will not reach anywhere.
200 victims a day; bank account gets blocked
"Every day, at least 200 people contact me saying their life has hit a dead end. Some of them even bawl inconsolably. One person who contacted me had his bank account blocked immediately after getting Rs 150. It was blocked based on a complaint the Kerala police had received. The facility to chat without revealing the phone number, and the option to delete chats on both ends, makes Telegram dear to the fraudsters," says Ajay Singh (YouTuber, and independent researcher studying the Telegram pre-paid scam).
(Next: Fake Sim cards and bank accounts for sale)
Note: If you are a victim of online fraud, share your story with Onmanorama. Write to us at email@example.com