New Delhi: Oxygen cylinders that never came, fake medicines and bogus medical suppliers that didn’t deliver goods after payment — the aggressive second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in India has been accompanied by another widespread epidemic, Covid-related frauds. And a significant number of lawyers have been stepping up by offering free legal advice and aid to the victims of such crimes.
As the onslaught of the pandemic overwhelmed health infrastructures across the country, people scrambled to acquire medical supplies and social media became a prominent medium of contacting suppliers. However, several people complained of widespread fraud and cheating by the contacts that have been circulating on these websites.
To tackle this rising problem, several lawyers came together through social media and organised into groups that are now coordinating the filing of complaints in police stations across the country. These groups are also raising legal awareness about the steps that can be taken against these fraudulent contacts. All of this assistance is being done pro bono or free of charge.
For Ramanuj Mukherjee, a 33-year-old entrepreneur-turned-lawyer, the initiative started with a post he had put up on the professional networking site LinkedIn.
Mukherjee’s post, which he put up two weeks ago, read: “Lots of people are cheating patients and their family members in the name of supplying oxygen, remdesivir, tocilizumab and other necessities…Thinking of setting up a legal cell to take these people to task. Anyone wants to collaborate?”
The call for collaboration led to the formation of a WhatsApp group that now has over 100 lawyers and law students from across the country, who are ready to offer free legal advice and aid in strategising or filing of complaints in such incidents.
Talking about his motivation behind the initiative called ‘Lawyers against Covifraud’, Mukherjee told ThePrint, “We cannot make oxygen or build ventilators, but the legal community can help to ease the suffering in some ways. We are trying to do our bit.”
Mukherjee has been working with online fraud cases since he started a helpline to aid victims of such cases in 2015. Through the helpline, which he launched on his blog iPleaders, he realised that several of these phishing scams and frauds were carried out by people in faraway cities. Therefore, filing an FIR in the victim’s city does little good.
“For example, somebody in Tamil Nadu will be scammed by someone in Punjab. Indian state police don’t coordinate on a national level in such crimes. Now if you get cheated on, you will go to your local police station to file a complaint, but that local police would not go to such a faraway place in some unknown district to catch the culprit,” he explained, adding that sending policemen on such a wild goose chase also proves to be costly for the authorities.
Instead, according to Mukherjee, registering a complaint in the city where the bank account of the fraudster exists leads to a faster probe and some people can even get their money back. This is the strategy that the lawyers associated with ‘Lawyers against Covifraud’ are currently focussing on.
Resistance from the police impeding aid efforts
Mukherjee and his team set up an email ID (firstname.lastname@example.org) exclusively for this initiative about 10 days ago. Since then, they have managed to register 10 complaints in New Delhi, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Noida, and have advised multiple victims.
The complaints were related to non-delivery of remdesivir injections despite payment, non-delivery of oxygen cylinders despite payment and delivery of fake injections dressed up as remdesivir.
Commenting on the difficulties they have faced, Mukherjee told ThePrint: “We have faced resistance from police officials at times. Sometimes they refuse to give us acknowledgement of the complaint or demand that the complainant has to come in person to the police station, which is often impossible as the victim may be Covid-positive or located in a different state.”
His team has also been approaching the Delhi Cyber Cell with descriptions of these fraud cases. The issue is then forwarded to the police station concerned and the complaint can be sent to the Station House Officer, the officer in charge of the police station.
Groups are also spreading awareness on social media
Another group of lawyers called ‘India pro bono lawyers’ is also doing its bit by spreading legal awareness through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to tackle such fraud cases. For instance, one of its Instagram posts explains the process of filing a complaint step-by-step before the consumer disputes redressal forum.
Another post talks about the actions that can be taken if a “spurious or misbranded” drug has been sold to someone. There are posts that list steps to claim health insurance and also the basic rights and safeguards of healthcare providers as well.
The group, which came together a week ago, currently comprises around 50 lawyers and aims to spread awareness as well as serve as a platform to connect victims of fraud or those in need of pandemic-related legal advice to pro bono lawyers.
Garima Mitra, a Mumbai-based lawyer who is a part of this group, told ThePrint that they have so far received a wide range of queries through email and social media for legal help related to misbranded drugs, non-delivery of cylinders despite payment, insurance claims, non-admission in hospitals, business-related queries relating to relaxations given due to the pandemic and many more.
‘Once wave settles, people may need legal advice’
According to Mukherjee, several people are hesitant to file complaints themselves because of the pandemic circumstances.
“Naturally, there are deaths in the family, or people are still recovering from Covid. There have been cases where people also died waiting for oxygen from these scamsters,” he told ThePrint.
Mitra also voiced similar concerns about people being hesitant about stepping into legal wrangles currently.
“Once this wave starts settling down is when people will actually start taking stock of what happened with them, and we think that that’s when the actual need for legal advice will increase,” she said.
The complaints, so far, focus on provisions relating to cheating, dishonest misappropriation of property and criminal breach of trust, along with provision of the Information Technology Act 2000.
However, in cases where the patient passed away due to non-delivery of essential drugs or devices from such con people, the FIR will also include the crime of culpable homicide, which carries a jail term of 10 years to life imprisonment.
(Edited by Rachel John)