Seconds-long calls on WhatsApp originating from numbers that seem to be registered abroad. Video calls designed to trap unsuspecting people into a cycle of shame and extortion. Phishing messages disguised as bank statements, electricity bills or official communication. These are only a handful of the myriad cyber scams that are snowballing in India, becoming progressively more sophisticated and more difficult to track. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that in 2021, the last year for which national data is available, a cyber-crime was recorded every 10 minutes somewhere in India. Yet, the administrative response has been found to be largely inadequate and piecemeal, due in no small part to nascent levels of awareness about internet and data protection.
How can this be fought? A new tranche of data from the Union home ministry offered some clues. The data, reported by this newspaper, showed that districts in the national capital region (NCR) accounted for nearly 54% of the origin of all cyber-crimes in the country. Other than the NCR region, hubs of cyber-crime were found in Jharkhand’s Deoghar and Jamtara districts, which have gained notoriety over the past decade as scores of phishing scams were traced back to the sleepy hamlets and villages of the impoverished region. But the geographically concentrated nature of the crime holds out hope that rigorous and focussed police action can help stem the tide of cyber scams, at least in the short-term, while working on longer-term salves.
The mushrooming of cyber scams is somewhat natural in a country where technology has been rapidly rolled out without any complementary rise in security and financial awareness levels. As a result, there are very few safeguards in place for people and generations that are not digital natives, such as older people. These gaps are further exacerbated by the non-existent sharing of best practices across departments, streams and platforms. And finally, poor oversight and compliance of know-your-customer checks — especially at grassroots levels — ensures that there is little possibility of tracing how a particular phone number or connection is given out, or in whose name.
Gullibility and shame are the first weaknesses that criminals prey on. The response to this, therefore, has to be greater awareness and conversation around such scams. These need to happen not just institutionally but also within families and among friends.
But data vulnerabilities will continue to persist in the absence of a national data protection law that institutes hefty penalties and a robust system to penalise any leaks. The past five years have seen large-scale data breaches but with little associated costs. These troves of leaked data form the bedrock on which the cyber scam enterprise is built. Alarmingly, such attempts have morphed from fly-by-night operations to full-scale gangs. Finally, old-fashioned policing will have to break up these operations. An investigation by this newspaper found that in Alwar, one of the hotspots, entire villages were part of the con. Cyber scams often don’t generate the kind of social pressure on policing that a rise in crimes such as rape and murder do; but this cannot be reason for laxity.
Cyber scams, like most crimes, are linked to the political economy problems of unemployment, poor avenues of income, and few ways for local people to fulfil aspiration. So, the government will also need to put in measures for longer-term transformation of these regions, even as it presses the pedal on immediate measures to curb the menace.
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