New Delhi, India: India’s coronavirus hell has been lucrative for its ever-inventive army of scammers, from phony medicines to fire extinguishers masquerading as oxygen cylinders and recycled personal protective equipment, with sometimes lethal consequences.
Chandrakant Taneja, Komal Taneja’s husband, died gasping for air at his New Delhi home last month after the oxygen canister they ordered over the internet for $200 never arrived.
“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.
“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.
Chandrakant, a stock market trader, died on May 1, leaving his homemaker wife hunting for work to assist care for his ailing parents.
India has a lengthy history of devious schemes that have defrauded regular people, both within and without its boundaries.
In one recent example, police raided a contact center in December that reportedly scammed 4,500 Americans out of $14 million.
They pretended to be US officials and warned victims that drug cartels were using their bank accounts and that their only alternative was to transfer their assets to bitcoin, which the gang would then cash in.
Hundreds of villagers in Haryana were proclaimed dead in traffic accidents to claim insurance in one sophisticated scam involving police and physicians that surfaced in 2019.
Catalogs of criminal activity
As India suffers from a severe coronavirus outbreak, investigators say many scammers have switched their attention to stealing off desperate Covid-19 patients and family.
When Narang, a private firm executive in Noida, was desperately looking for an oxygen concentrator for an ill buddy, he was swindled by a cunning scam, he said.
“I came across a link for a supplier which looked genuine and even had a catalog with different models. The prices too were competitive,” Narang told AFP.
“I spoke with a person on the phone. He asked for about 45,000 rupees in two installments. I was sure it was genuine and even recommended this supplier to another acquaintance.
The device never arrived.
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.
“These criminals saw it as an opportune moment to make an entry,” senior Delhi police officer Shibesh Singh told AFP.
His Crime Branch has already caught a slew of con artists, including a gang that manufactured and marketed counterfeit Remdesivir antiviral medicines for up to 40 times the market price.
“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.
Another group repainted fire extinguishers and presented them as oxygen cylinders, while another pretended to be doctors and advertised non-existent hospital beds.
Six men were arrested last week on suspicion of washing, repackaging, and selling a large quantity of old medical gloves obtained from hospitals.
“We can only urge the people to be extra cautious while approaching such contacts for online help,” Singh said.
Some of the victims are calling for harsh penalties.
“Hang them all,” said Narang.
“If not that, then the government should ensure life imprisonment. This isn’t just mental or financial, they are playing with human life.”
With AFP inputs