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Oxygen touts, bogus suppliers, fake remdesivir — full-fledged Covid con industry up & running

While Delhi Police has launched a helpline for victims, many are taking to social media to share how they paid for oxygen cylinders that never came, or were even sent fire extinguishers instead.

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New Delhi: Ravi Kashyap, a 43-year-old IT professional residing in Noida, had been desperately looking for an oxygen cylinder for his Covid positive father last week, when he came across the contact number of a “local supplier” shared by his friends on a WhatsApp group.

The supplier assured Kashyap of immediate delivery and asked for an advance payment of Rs 8,500. The money was transferred to the account specified, but the oxygen cylinder never came. His father, Prakash Jha, died on 2 May. He was 67.

Kashyap’s experience is by no means unique. As people desperately hunt for life-saving oxygen in the midst of the prevalent Covid surge and the accompanying steep shortage of medical oxygen, especially in places like Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, an increasing number are falling prey to “Covid SOS scammers” — frauds duping people on the promise of providing essentials needed for Covid patients — whose numbers are circulating on social media and WhatsApp groups.

And often, as in the case of Kashyap, those cheated are so caught up with the medical emergency at hand that they don’t even manage to lodge a police complaint.

The intervening night of 26-27 April was a trying one for Kashyap and his brother, Parth. The family had been in home isolation since their father had tested positive for Covid. Suddenly, they found that their father’s oxygen level had dropped to 72, which is way below the normal range, and he was gasping for breath. Kashyap quickly scrolled through the messages on a WhatsApp group, where he remembered his friends having shared the contact number of some local suppliers of oxygen cylinders.

“Around 6 am, my brother called one such supplier, Sachin Agarwal, on the number that had been shared — 8902423847. He was quick to respond and assured us that he could deliver a cylinder to our place immediately,” Kashyap told ThePrint. “He asked for an advance payment of Rs 5,000, which we quickly made to his Google Pay account.”

Kashyap and his brother, meanwhile, received a confirmation for a hospital bed for their father at Primus Super Specialty Hospital, Chankyapuri, but were told the ambulance being sent to transport him wouldn’t have oxygen support.

“We called up Sachin again and he asked for a further payment of Rs 3,500. Again we transferred the money to his account, but still he didn’t deliver the oxygen cylinder,” said Kashyap. When eventually Agarwal told the brothers that they would have to buy two cylinders from him, and make an advance payment for both, if they wanted it to be delivered urgently, did the Kashyaps realise that something was wrong. When they refused, the supplier assured them that the money they had already paid would be returned to them. That never happened.

“I had wanted to follow up with him, but my father passed away and I could not. But even now, when I think of it, my blood boils in rage,” said the Noida resident.

Some of those cheated, however, have managed to seek legal recourse.

Three weeks ago, the Delhi Police had launched a helpline to receive public complaints for crimes relating to essentials required for Covid patients. As many as 225 FIRs have been registered since. While 78 of these are cases of black-marketing and hoarding, the rest pertain to complaints of cheating and fraud. There are also incidences of fake medicines and fire extinguishers being delivered instead of the right drugs and oxygen cylinders.

Of those accused, 144 have been arrested so far.

Many of those whose names are appearing in the complaints of fraud, are repeat offenders, who have duped more than one desperate client. The problem has become so widespread, that many of those cheated are now sharing their experiences on WhatsApp groups and social media, to alert others against a similar fate.

Pharmaceutical company Cipla and the Delhi Police have also issued warnings against such frauds.


Also read: I had Covid, when should I get vaccine? What if I miss second dose? Answers to these & more


One fraud, many duped

Shiven Madan, a resident of Delhi’s Navjivan Vihar, paid Rs 40,000 as rent for an oxygen concentrator that he never received. The 34-year-old employee of a consumer management marketing firm in Singapore, who is currently in India, decided to place the order after both his aunt and uncle — whose left side of the body is paralysed — tested positive for Covid.

Madan received the contact of the supplier, Jaideep Tomar, through a friend and therefore thought he had little reason to doubt him.

On 29 April, Madan placed an order for the concentrator — for which Tomar said he charges Rs 8,000 a day — after paying an advance of Rs 40,000. The concentrator was to have been delivered to his uncle and aunt’s residence in Gurgaon, Madan told ThePrint. When the concentrator did not reach them, Madan called the supplier again.

“He told me he had run out of stock and that he was on a train and would call me once he reached the city. He never answered either my or my friend’s calls after that,” said Madan, adding, “But I did not give up and continued to follow up with him [with calls and messages to both Tomar’s number and that of a relative whose contact the supplier had shared for the money to be transferred]. Finally, he returned Rs 25,000 through the relative.”

The remaining Rs 15,000 came Thursday, after repeated threats of police complaints, and when Madan had all but lost hopes of recovering it.

A bill for the oxygen concentrators sent by the supplier to Shiven Madan | Image by special arrangement
A bill for the advance payment of Rs 40,000 made by Shiven Madan as rent for an oxygen concentrator | Image by special arrangement

“We have been trying to follow up on each complaint received and our initial investigations have revealed that many of these so-called suppliers are from Bihar,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Crime (Delhi Police), Monika Bhardwaj.

According to sources in the Delhi Police, links of gangs of cyber frauds, operating from states like Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and the Mewat region, have been found in the technical analysis done by the Cyber Cell and Crime Branch of Delhi Police. Most of the frauds were committed through social media platforms such as WhatsApp. The Delhi Police is tracing details of beneficiaries, to whose accounts the money charged for the supposed deliveries, of things like oxygen cylinders and concentrators, were deposited.

The police have also busted a three-member gang operating in the city’s Outer District, on the basis of a complaint received on 3 May. The gang had duped relatives of a Covid patient in Paschim Vihar East, and conned them off Rs 45,000 for an oxygen cylinder that was never delivered.

Another accused Mohit Kumar, who operated mostly in South-East district, had cheated over 50 people on the pretext of supplying them with oxygen cylinders. According to the police, the accused even bought an iPhone, worth Rs 70,000, with the ill-gotten money. He used online payment portal PhonePe to have the money transferred to him.

Sachin Agarwal, who had duped the Kashyap brothers of Rs 8,500, seems to be another such repeat offender. Both his mobile number and his business card — made out in the name of Durga Gas Depot — have been circulating across social media platforms, including on Twitter and Instagram. A case of cyber fraud has been filed against him at the Shahdara police station and is currently being investigated by the cyber cell.

Meanwhile, several of his victims have taken to Twitter to share how they were duped by Agarwal. One such person is Delhi-based journalist Nidhi Suresh who shared her ordeal in a series of tweets.


Also read: Delhi hospital study finds just 16% vaccinated individuals got Covid, experts say nothing serious


Fire extinguishers sent as oxygen cylinders

Perhaps even more annoying than not getting the oxygen cylinder that one has paid for, is getting a fire extinguisher, instead.

Two men were arrested in Dwarka last week for charging Rs 10,000 for an oxygen cylinder and then supplying a fire extinguisher to the buyer. Five fire extinguishers were found in their possession.

The two, Ashutosh Chauhan, 19, and Ayush Kumar, 22, were arrested based on a complaint filed by Uttam Nagar resident Geeta Arora, who, according to a statement released by the Delhi Police, paid Rs 10,000 to the accused for an oxygen cylinder, but received a fire extinguisher instead. Arora had contacted the two after a Covid-positive relative — who had failed to get a hospital bed — complained of breathlessness.

On Wednesday, three persons were arrested in a similar case, based on a complaint filed by NGO Radha Vallabh Sewa Sangh at Farsh Bazar police station.

The two arrested from Dwarka for sending fire extinguishers instead of oxygen cylinders | Photo by special arrangement
The two arrested in Dwarka for sending fire extinguishers instead of oxygen cylinders | Photo by special arrangement

There have also been cases of scamsters delivering fake medicines, packaged like the original.

Delhi Commissioner of Police S.N. Shrivastava Tuesday shared details of a raid at a pharmaceutical manufacturing unit in Uttarakhand that was producing fake remedesivir injections (used in Covid treatment) — named Covipri — to alert people against potential frauds.

Pharma company Cipla also issued a warning on Twitter on 28 April against frauds.

Meanwhile, Delhi Police DCP (South West) Ingit Pratap Singh has handed over oxygen cylinders recovered from a raid against those hoarding them to hospitals in South West Delhi, after the Delhi High Court agreed to his plea to be allowed to do so.

“I felt these cylinders need to be put to good use, given the crisis around us and hence I decided to do this,” Singh told ThePrint.

According to data obtained from Delhi Police, as of 5 May, 240 oxygen cylinders were seized in raids on hoarders.

On Friday, 96 oxygen concentrators were recovered from Khan Chacha, a popular restaurant in Delhi’s Khan Market, said DCP (South), Delhi Police, Atul Thakur.

Many victims of cyber frauds related to Covid treatment essentials have meanwhile taken to social media to share their experience and alert others against making similar mistakes. Some of them — journalist Naina Chaturvedi, for example, who paid Rs 40,000 and Rs 12,000 to two separate people for oxygen cylinders that were not delivered to her — have also tagged the police on their social media posts.

Delhi resident Neera Khanna, whose 30-year-old son Manas and his friends were duped of a total of Rs 11,500, had shared the details with other residents of her Alaknanda apartment, on a residents’ WhatsApp group.

“While my son was arranging a cylinder for our relative, his friend was also in desperate need for oxygen for her mother, who was Covid positive. Both paid advances — of Rs 4,000 and Rs 7,500, respectively — but did not receive the promised cylinders,” Khanna told ThePrint.

“When I followed up with the supplier, he told me ‘kar lo jo karna hai [do what you can],” recalled Khanna, adding that the contact details of the “supplier” was 9472628677. While he never shared his name, his Aadhaar card [a friend of Manas contacted the supplier pretending to be a potential client, managed to get his Aadhar details] had the name Nitin Kumar, she added.

Kashyap too has shared his ordeal with other residents of his housing complex, to stop them from falling for similar frauds.

With inputs from Bismee Taskin

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)


Also read: Armed forces can turn Delhi’s Covid situation around in 48 hours. Time to call them in


 

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