Fraud, via Google Search

Scamsters are inserting their own phone numbers in the customer-care section and duping credulous customers

Sangeet Toor

Out of all the online frauds, Google Search fraud is the most overlooked one. Google Search is a huge honeytrap used by scamsters to rob people of their money and identity. Since Google search engine is widely used and is unquestionably trusted, the trickster lies in plain sight. Under the garb of common assumptions that people tie up with the companies they want to seek help from, a layman can hardly twist the simple facts.

To understand this fraud better, let’s create a scenario where Aakash wants to get a new Indane gas connection. He searches the Indane gas agency that serves his apartment. The first search result is Google Maps that shows three to four options with timings, addresses and phone numbers. As he is very busy in the office, he calls the phone number and asks them if it is possible to apply via phone. Yes, it is possible, he is told. He is asked to send scanned copies of his Aadhaar card, PAN card, credit card, bank account details, etc. He obliges.

He gets a call in a few minutes and he is told that he will get an OTP on his phone number which he should send immediately. He obliges. The next thing he knows is that someone has taken Rs 2 lakh from his bank account. He files a police complaint and approaches the cyber cell. There he gets to know that the number he called was actually not the gas agency’s phone number. Some malicious element had inserted his own phone number in the Google Search results.

It is a known fact that the chances of getting lost money back are negligible. So, be cautious than sorry. But how? 

  • Do not assume. Always visit the official website to get the contact information.
  • If anyone asks about your bank details or personal information, do not share.
  • Company representatives never ask for OTP.

It is also a natural to ask how fraudsters insert their own phone numbers in the customer care section. The answer is that Google has made it easy for the businesses to update addresses and phone numbers. The downside is that anyone can change such information on Google and Google Maps. This brings us to another logical conclusion — if I am a fraudster, I will insert my phone number for applications that deal with bank details. This is how I will be able to dupe people more organically. If someone is naïve enough to look up State Bank of India customer care number, as opposed to just looking on the back side of the credit or debit card, then that someone is sure to not suspect the person on the other side of the call asking for OTP. This naiveté along with the sophisticated psychological manipulation used by the tricksters has given rise to a surge in the online fraud activity despite the consistent efforts made by organisations to educate the public.

The banking sector and other related sectors such as bigger gas agencies have done a lot of effort to educate and train people through text messages, etc. The Indian Railways, Passport Sewa Kendras and others in the service sector have made it a point on their websites and through texts to inform the public of the menace of scamsters online, stressing on the fact that the real representatives don’t ask for sensitive information. The public is paying attention, but the scamming industry has picked up drastically in recent times. Some scammers who have made bigger bucks duping people, and the ability of the Voice over Internet Protocol numbers plus series of untraceable bank accounts to effectively mask the perpetrators have emboldened the malicious actors to raise the bar in malicious activity itself. These are not lone callers; they are backed by call centers that are raised and fed on duped money. Just in case a victim suspects the toll-free number could be a trap, there is a line of fraudster associates who will impress the victim with their mimicking of the real call center. However, there are red flags:

  • They try too hard to impress you.
  • They get irritated when you question them about the kind of information being asked by them.
  • They resort to scare tactics to intimidate you with a potential loss.
  • They present you with now-or-never scenarios.

The two best tips to keep your hard-earned money safe are:

  • Always visit the official website.
  • Never share the card and OTP information.

It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes. Always second guess your assumptions when you wade through the virtual world. Educate yourself and the people around you. Enjoy the best of Google searches and Google Maps’ street and satellite views.

Recent cases

In November 2018, Thane police nabbed fraudsters after they got three complaints about fake customer care numbers and fraud for Bank of India office in the region. In December 2018, a woman in East Delhi lost Rs 1 lakh after searching for the customer care number of an e-wallet app. In January 2019, Amul filed a legal notice to Google India Private Limited for providing its platform to fraudsters who use Google’s search engine to dupe people in the name of Amul.

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