New frauds catch up with new technology

New technology is good and welcomed by all consumers as they make life simple and purchase of goods easy. Everybody partakes in the thrill of carrying out banking transactions or booking a cinema ticket sitting at home, or even ordering groceries or services from the comforts of one’s couch.

Cheating or pulling a fast one on the consumer is reduced to a bare minimum in these scenarios because of the reputation of the seller – or so we would like to think. But the principle of ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware) still applies today as it did decades ago when coined, in spite of all the technological tools available at our disposal.

A daughter sends an expensive camera as a gift to her parents through the
official postal channels, from the USA.

The camera is received intact and subjected to assessment by the customs department as is the norm. After inspection, the postal department seals the camera back in its box in the post office.

All this is documented and recorded on Close Circuit TV – thanks to modern technology. The package however, arrives without the camera when delivered by the postman to the consumer. To add salt to the wound, the postman hands over the parcel only on payment of the customs duty for the import, amounting to almost Rs 30,000. Hi-tech, anybody?

The old ‘Nigerian scam’, where a person would get a letter or e–mail saying that he had won a few million dollars based on a random lottery is passé. E-mail id hacking and asking for one’s banking password are now old hat. The hackers are smarter than the bankers – whenever banks have a ‘service break’ on their computers and inform all their customers that there would be a short period in which services would be unavailable, the fraudsters get into action.

A call will come ‘from the bank’ soon after that ‘service break’ stating that in the maintenance phase, ‘your number and password were deleted by chance’. The consumer parts with his secret details and before he can bat an eyelid, he receives an SMS that a transaction has taken place in his account.

“Wangiri calls” (Wangiri is Japanese for a one way call, though the word sounds very much Indian) are another international racket which take consumers for a ride. Three or four missed calls in a row from a number beginning with +31 or +33 fox the poor recipient to believe that someone is desperately trying to call him.

He calls back and is drawn into a long-drawn conversation in a low, inaudible voice. A few minutes later he gets disgusted and disconnects the call. The bill which he receives for the call gives him a rude shock – it is at the rate of Rs 80 + taxes per minute as the call is made to a special number or satellite phone with premium charges.

Of late, Voluntary Consumer Organisations (VCOs) are getting many complaints of frauds perpetrated on telephone pertaining to insurance companies. A tele-marketer calls the consumer offering him a loan ‘only if he purchases an insurance policy’ or a ‘lucrative policy with a one-time premium’. Somebody comes to his doorstep a few days later and asks him for a cheque and to sign a few forms, which he confidently does.

He gets a term insurance policy a few weeks later, which does not offer him a loan and in addition is a multi-year policy of 15 years’ duration. The address and cell number of the consumer are deliberately mentioned incorrectly in the form, so that the policy finds itself in his hands only a few weeks later.

Consumer complaints

When the consumer complains to the insurance company, he is told the 15-day ‘look-in period’ to return the policy if dissatisfied is long over, leading him to a frustrating fight for his rights and dues. The insurance ombudsmen and banking regulators often reply with bland answers that the law is clear in its wording and that there is very little they can do in such cases, where a consumer signs blank forms and literally writes away his rights.

The home service sector is also the target of such rackets that make the consumer part with his valuable money. In Mumbai, there is an organised racket where ‘service mechanics’ from gas companies (both piped and cylinder variety) come for random checks to the consumer’s house during daytime. An ‘official’ identity card identifies him as the mechanic.

After tinkering with the gas stove and burner, the mechanic announces that there is some part on the verge of breakdown and in view of the sensitive nature of the object involved, he will change it immediately. The nonplussed housewife agrees – and receives an official receipt for the job done. Unfortunately, neither the company issuing the receipt nor the mechanic is genuine and needless to say, the part changed, though in working condition, is of poor quality.

New age complaints which are flooding  police stations across the country’s metros and towns have even the police at their wits’ end. Faceless executives making and receiving calls at call centres have led to a situation where consumers have started believing everything that they are told by glib-talking scamsters.

Remedial measures like centralising billing for all services with companies themselves is found to be too expensive and complicated to the liking of companies. ‘Caveat emptor!’, the new generation of fraudsters is at your door again.

(The writer is Honorary Secretary, Consumer Guidance Society of India, Mumbai)

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