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BEWARE of the 'Joker' scam: How cybercriminals are exploiting innocent housewives, job-seekers in India

The modus operandi of the 'Joker' scam is as insidious as it is elaborate. Operating from a nerve center in Cambodia with purported Chinese links, the syndicate lures recruits into its fold by offering lucrative work-from-home opportunities.

BEWARE of the 'Joker' scam: How cybercriminals are exploiting innocent housewives, job-seekers in India snt
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First Published May 29, 2024, 2:25 PM IST

In the interconnected world of the 21st century, the rise of cybercrime presents a daunting challenge for law enforcement agencies worldwide. In recent times, a disturbing trend has emerged in India, particularly in Chennai and other urban centers, where unsuspecting individuals are ensnared in elaborate cyber scams, often with devastating consequences.

One such scheme, ominously dubbed the 'Joker' scam, has gained notoriety for its sophisticated operations and widespread impact. Inspired by the eponymous villain from the 2019 film starring Joaquin Phoenix as the eponymous villain, this international syndicate preys on the vulnerable, recruiting housewives, job-seekers, and others through deceptive promises of quick financial gains.

According to a TOI report, a housewife residing in the outskirts of Chennai, was recently enticed by a WhatsApp message offering lucrative work-from-home opportunities promising up to Rs 10,000 per day. Joining a Telegram group named 'Joker' after clicking the provided link, she received a private message from an admin offering a lump sum in exchange for sharing someone's bank account details.

Unaware of the implications, she referred her neighbour. However, their seemingly innocent actions soon led to a shocking turn of events as the cybercrime police knocked on their doors a month later, connecting them to a global cybercrime syndicate. Their bank account, among 15 others, was utilized by the recently apprehended gang to store proceeds from various illicit activities, totaling up to Rs 12 crore over the past nine months.

According to the cybercrime wing, which has apprehended five suspects thus far, Cambodia serves as the nerve center of the scam, with operatives having ties to China. The arrested individuals—Azharuddin, Ebenezer, Ganesh, Ratan Raj, and Rajkumar—operated as intermediaries, establishing a fictitious company in Chennai. They paid Rs 2 lakh to 'recruiters' like the housewife in Chennai and Rs 5 lakh to 'mules' such her neighbour.

Targeting individuals like housewives with limited digital literacy, as well as job-seeking youth, roadside vendors, and daily wage labourers, this gang's operations were highlighted by an investigation officer from the Greater Chennai Police's cybercrime wing.

“People sharing their bank account number often believe they are not at risk and have nothing to lose since their money is not involved. They could however be arrested for criminal liability as their accounts were used for illegal transactions," Advocate N Karthikeyan, who trains Tamil Nadu police on cyber laws, was quoted as saying in a TOI report.

In two additional instances, the detained individuals were discovered in possession of nearly 600 SIM cards obtained through the use of counterfeit identification documents. These SIM cards were subsequently employed to conduct transactions from the mule accounts. According to Karthikeyan, cybercriminals based outside the country traveled to Chennai to collect these SIM cards.

BEWARE of the 'Joker' scam: How cybercriminals are exploiting innocent housewives, job-seekers in India snt

Southeast Asia the new hub of cyber crimes

In recent reports, it has come to light that areas like Jamtara in Jharkhand and Mewat in Haryana have become significant centers for financial cyber fraud in India. Shockingly, a staggering 46% of the defrauded money is now traced back to cybercrimes originating in Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos.

According to Rajesh Kumar, CEO of the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C), organized cybercrime gangs are operating with a corporate-style approach from bases in these Southeast Asian countries. They employ illegal recruitment agents in India to lure job seekers, subsequently coercing them into defrauding their fellow citizens.

Here's how their operation typically unfolds: Illegal recruiters advertise fake jobs in states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, and Delhi. Those who fall for the bait are then coerced into deceiving unsuspecting victims in India through various means, including social media advertisements promising quick financial gains, fraudulent gaming schemes, or digital impersonation, where cybercriminals pose as law enforcement officials. Romance and dating scams are also prevalent.

For instance, just last month, a recruiter in Chennai's Anna Nagar facilitated jobs for her relatives, sending them to Cambodia, where a network of cyber scammers operates out of seemingly legitimate office spaces in apartment complexes. However, these locations are merely fronts used for making spam calls and ensnaring Indian victims into sharing sensitive bank details.

Efforts by I4C and state law enforcement agencies have led to crackdowns on some of these illegal recruitment agents. Recent arrests have been made in Visakhapatnam and Odisha, targeting those responsible for sending youths to Cambodia under false pretenses.

The Ministry of External Affairs has been actively involved in facilitating the return of trapped Indians, with 360 individuals already rescued from these cybercrime units, and 60 more expected to return soon from Cambodia. Cooperation with Cambodian authorities in Phnom Penh has been crucial in these efforts.

Reports from individuals who have returned shed light on the appalling conditions they were subjected to. Forced labour, confiscation of mobile phones, and daily quotas based on skills were common practices. Workers were coerced into making scam calls using voice cloning software or sending text messages through various platforms.

Despite the harsh circumstances, the scam syndicates ensured that promised salaries were deposited into the workers' Indian accounts promptly to avoid raising suspicions among their families.

According to Kumar's data, between January and April of this year, Rs 1,420 crore was lost to 62,587 investment scams, Rs 222 crore to 20,043 trading scams, Rs 120 crore to 4,600 digital arrest scams, and Rs 13 crore to 1,725 romance/dating scams, all originating from Southeast Asia.

Last year alone, more than one lakh investment scams originating from the region were reported on the Indian national cybercrime reporting portal, resulting in 10,000 FIRs being filed.

BEWARE of the 'Joker' scam: How cybercriminals are exploiting innocent housewives, job-seekers in India snt

'Chinese involved in cybercrime hubs'

The head of I4C highlighted that a significant number of Chinese individuals are known to be involved in these scam hubs.

Furthermore, he emphasized that the proceeds from these cybercrime activities originating in Southeast Asia are funneled through sophisticated financial channels, which include Indian bank accounts, cryptocurrency transactions, and cash withdrawals.

In the midst of a general rise in major fraud cases reported in 2024, with over six lakh complaints totaling Rs 7,061 crore received on the national cybercrime reporting portal, I4C has managed to prevent Rs 812.7 crore from being defrauded.

In response to the escalating threat posed by transnational organized cybercrimes originating from Southeast Asian countries, the government has recently established an inter-ministerial committee. This committee comprises various law enforcement and intelligence agencies, tasked with addressing the surge in such cybercrimes targeting Indians.

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