After millions of Indians received a spate of scam calls on WhatsApp last month — with some of them getting defrauded — the Union government has directed the messaging company to submit a report detailing the telecom carriers that were predominantly used to create fraudulent accounts, The Indian Express has learnt.
“After it was brought to the IT Ministry’s notice how people from within India were using phone numbers from foreign countries to create WhatsApp accounts for committing cyber frauds, we have asked them to share a report on telecom carriers from which these numbers were originating,” said a senior government official, requesting anonymity.
It is understood that once WhatsApp shares the report with the IT Ministry, it could take action against those telecom carriers’ phone numbers. WhatsApp has agreed to share the report with the government, it is learnt. Many countries do not have stringent know-your-customer norms for issuing phone numbers to users.
WhatsApp declined to comment, saying it had “no input to share”.
After the platform was abused by fraudsters, prompting the government to send a notice to the company, WhatsApp said that it ramped up its artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) systems to reduce international scam calls by at least 50 per cent. The scam calls have reduced since then.
Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar had earlier told The Indian Express that the IT Ministry will work with the Telecom Department to ensure that platforms generating such cloned numbers are blocked in the country.
On May 13, The Indian Express had reported — following conversations with people involved in the scam calls — on the process through which people could easily create phone numbers from any foreign jurisdiction from within India itself.
The investigation had revealed this scam is a multi-million-dollar industry where fraudsters get their hands on international numbers, largely through three ways: free access websites that generate virtual phone numbers of any country; platforms that create such numbers for a fee that’s paid through cryptocurrency; and a thriving ecosystem of people on platforms such as Telegram and eBay that generate such numbers.
Cybersecurity experts and scammers revealed that a small payment of around Rs 500 in Bitcoin or Ethereum earns the potential scammer a WhatsApp account with a phone number from any foreign jurisdiction. One of the scammers directed this correspondent to a platform called smscodes.io, through which phone numbers from a number of countries, including the US and UK, Poland, the Philippines, Indonesia and Mali, among others, could be created.
Apart from creating a phone number, the app also generated the OTP needed to create the business account on WhatsApp.
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Another route that fraudsters take to acquire these numbers is by buying them from one of hundreds of dealers on platforms such as Telegram and eBay. The investigation revealed that an international number can be bought for about Rs 100, with the price coming down further for purchases made in bulk.
Responding to findings of The Indian Express investigation into the creation of foreign jurisdiction mobile numbers by fraudsters in India, IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw last month said that the Centre is committed to taking “harsh steps” to curb cyber frauds.
When asked whether the government knew about these scammers operating in India, Vaishnaw said: “You are absolutely right. This is one big sector on which we are putting so much focus that everything that can create fraud, we have to try and plug it. This may require some very harsh steps, but the government is committed to take those harsh steps”.
© The Indian Express (P) Ltd
First published on: 03-06-2023 at 00:08 IST