08, Jan, 2024

‘Golden Hour’, a brief second chance for victims of cybercrime

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MUMBAI: A week before Diwali, Kajal Parekh was in the process of booking a hotel in Ambaji, Gujarat, through a contact number she had found online. It struck her as slightly odd that she was unable to call the number but could respond to WhatsApp messages; nevertheless, she proceeded with the booking. When it was payment time, the person at the other end, instead of providing her with the hotel’s bank details as suggested by Kajal, asked her to pay through the scanner that he had sent.

It was only when ₹93,000 was deducted from the bank account—a much higher amount than the hotel’s tariff—through five different transactions that Kajal realised she was the victim of a cyber fraud. A couple of hours later, when her husband Ashok arrived and learned what had happened, he immediately called their bank, which asked him to visit the nearest police station immediately.

At Matunga police station, the couple met cyber officer Inspector Keshav Wagh, who contacted their bank and successfully prevented the amount from being stolen. The account where it was transferred was instantly frozen, and the Parekhs are now in the process of getting the money transferred back into their account.

The family’s close shave is an example of cybercrime victims managing to prevent their money from reaching fraudsters despite the transaction going through. What worked in the Parekhs’ favour was the fact that they approached the police within what is called the Golden Hour—the period of up to three hours in which scamsters have still to move the loot from the parking account to their own in very small denominations.

Inspector Wagh said that the biggest advantage in the Parekhs’ case was the fact that they were still talking to the conman when they arrived at the police station. “This means the frauds had not been alerted yet about the victim being aware of the con,” he said. “They keep engaging with the Parekhs, hoping for an even higher payback.” The complaint was thus lodged with the bank, the nodal cybercrime authority of the state and the cyber portal before the criminals got a chance to move the money.

Parking accounts are usually not in the name of scamsters themselves; they belong to accomplices who get a cut in return for the use of their accounts. Once the money is disbursed into other accounts—those controlled by the scamsters—it becomes that much more difficult to track the money trail, especially because very small amounts are transferred into each account at one time.

1930 is a toll-free number where such frauds are to be reported at the earliest to take advantage of the Golden Hour. Cybercrime investigator Ritesh Bhatia said that though the helpline worked very well in Mumbai, it was not too effective in other cities of the state. “But the police are already doing pretty well on this front, given their restricted manpower and other resources,” he said.

Sanjay Shintre, Maharashtra superintendent of police for cybercrime, claimed that the helpline was working very well throughout the state. “It receives an average of 1,000 calls every day,” he said. “Of these, 50 to 60 percent report a new fraud. Every day, we end up freezing accounts through these calls. The daily number of frozen transactions is approximately ₹1 crore.” All this is apart from the cases reported over the union government’s cybercrime portal.

Bhatia said it was high time that banks too started playing a more active role and taking more responsibility in financial frauds. “They could start by extending customer support 24/7—this is especially necessary, considering that digital transactions are made at all hours,” he said. “Cyber criminals take advantage of the lags in the banking system and conduct most of their scams over the weekend, as they are aware that customer service does not respond to customers at that time or after banking hours.”

A cyber police officer agreed with Bhatia on this score. “In an IC4 meeting between the Reserve Bank of India, law-enforcement authorities and representatives of private banks, which took place in Mumbai last week, the police requested the RBI to mandate banks to have a 24X7 nodal officer to receive cybercrime complaints,” he said.

The Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre, of which the central government’s cybercrime portal is a part, is a home ministry initiative inaugurated in 2020. According to minister of state for home affairs Ajay Kumar Mishra, it has been able to save more than ₹930 crore in the 3.8 lakh complaints made through the portal in the last three years.


Payal Gwalani / Updated: December 18, 2023

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