COVID-19: Scammers thrive as India ravaged by coronavirus

New Delhi: From fake medicines to fire extinguishers disguised as oxygen cylinders and recycled personal protective equipment, India’s coronavirus hell has been lucrative for its ever-inventive army of scammers, with sometimes deadly consequences.

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Komal Taneja’s husband Chandrakant died gasping for breath at his New Delhi home last month after the oxygen canister that they paid $200 for on the internet never arrived.

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“We desperately tried to find a hospital bed for a week… Two private hospitals asked us for a million rupees ($13,800) in advance,” Komal, her voice cracking on the phone, told AFP.

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“Then we came across a contact online promising an oxygen cylinder delivery within an hour of making the 15,000 rupees payment. When we did, they asked for more money, and then stopped responding,” Komal added.

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Chandrakant, 36, who worked at the stock market, died on May 1, leaving his homemaker wife looking for a job to help look after his ailing parents.

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Scam central

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India has a long history of audacious scams ripping off ordinary people, including beyond its borders.

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In just one typical case, in December police busted a call centre that allegedly defrauded 4,500 Americans out of $14 million.

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Impersonating US officials, they told victims that their bank accounts were being used by drug cartels and that the only option was to convert their assets into bitcoin – which the gang would then cash in.

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One elaborate scam involving police and doctors that emerged in 2019 saw hundreds of villagers in Haryana declared dead in road accidents to claim insurance.

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Catalogues of crime

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Investigators say many scammers have turned their attention to ripping off desperate Covid-19 patients and relatives as India suffers a devastating coronavirus surge.

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Narang, a private company executive in Noida, said he was swindled by a sophisticated scam when he was desperately looking for an oxygen concentrator for a sick friend.

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“I came across a link for a supplier which looked genuine, and even had a catalogue with different models. The prices too were competitive,” Narang told AFP.

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“I spoke with a person on the phone. He asked for about 45,000 rupees in two instalments. I was sure it was genuine and even recommended this supplier to another acquaintance.

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The device never arrived.

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600 cases

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His case is one of at least 600 investigations launched by police in New Delhi alone in recent weeks with people desperately looking for oxygen, hospital beds and drugs.

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“These criminals saw it as an opportune moment to make an entry,” senior Delhi police officer Shibesh Singh told AFP.

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His Crime Branch teams have already arrested many scammers, including a gang that made and sold counterfeit doses of the antiviral drug Remdesivir for up to 40 times the market price.

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“These people were producing fake vials which cost them about 20 rupees and (they) sold it in the market for anything above 10,000 rupees,” Singh said.

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In another case, a gang repainted fire extinguishers and sold them as oxygen cylinders, while another posed as doctors offering non-existent hospital beds.

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This week, six men were reportedly arrested on suspicion of washing, repackaging and selling several tonnes of used surgical gloves from hospitals.

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“We can only urge the people to be extra cautious while approaching such contacts for online help,” Singh said.

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Some victims are demanding tough punishments.

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“Hang them all,” said Narang.

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“If not that, then the government should ensure life imprisonment. This isn’t just mental or financial, they are playing with human life.”

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