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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Mumbai jab scam

A single common trait linked those behind the vaccination fraud and helped them win the trust of the unsuspecting victims: their ordinariness.

Written by Jayprakash Naidu, Tabassum Barnagarwala | Mumbai |
Updated: July 5, 2021 7:28:58 am
Shivam Hospital owners Dr Shivraj Pataria and wife Neeta have been arrested in connection with the case. (Express Photo)

An unemployed clerk, owners of a hospital, a dentist looking to cash in on the city’s vaccine eagerness amid a shortage, and a group of unemployed people were behind the vaccination scam that shook Mumbai last month. As many as 3,700 people targeted by the scammers, including 352 in Navi Mumbai, have been traced. The police have confirmed that at least 2,060 of them in 9 drives were jabbed with nothing more than saline water at camps where they were charged between Rs 800 and Rs 1,260.

The police have arrested 14 persons so far in connection with the fake vaccination drives that stretched from April to June in Mumbai and Thane.

Of the 14, six are alleged to have played key roles in the conspiracy. In April, they are alleged to have violated vaccination norms by organising camps at housing societies and on the premises of private companies, using vaccines provided by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. The police suspect, but are yet to officially confirm, that those vaccinated in the early stages of the scam might have received genuine vaccinations.

It was in May that the BMC permitted vaccination camps at housing societies and other places, that they allegedly refilled empty vials with saline and administered these to thousands of unsuspecting people.

Who were the perpetrators, and how did they come together to trick thousands of people through this elaborate plot? And who were the people whose vulnerabilities at they managed to exploit at the height of the rampaging second wave.

The Clerk

Mahendra Pratap Singh, 39, a well networked clerk who was fired from a local medical association in April, was the alleged mastermind.

Singh, a class 10 passout, was a clerk for 15 years at the Malad Medical Association (MMA), established in 1965. He had access to 2,000 doctor-members, the association’s office and its conference room.

“His work was to arrange for medical seminars, send e-mails, prepare the venue for events,” a member of the association said. Through this he met several doctors, pharmaceutical agents, event managers and marketing executives.

Singh moonlighted doing event management work, and coordinated with hospitals to get patients admitted. In early April, the MMA fired him after they found he was holding “personal meetings” at their office and using the association’s name to strike deals.

The Doctors

Singh reached out to Dr Shivraj Pataria and pharmacist wife Neeta, owners of Shivam hospital, in Charkop, whom he knew well through his work at MMA. In April, when government norms allowed only healthcare, frontline workers and people aged above 45 years to get inoculated at government centres, the trio illegally vaccinated even those below the age limit at their hospital by tagging them as frontline workers.

“The couple faced no financial crunch, they were just driven by the urge to make more,” a Kandivali police official said.

They held vaccination drives for corporate employees in the offices of these companies in MIDC and Kandivali in April, although the vaccine norms did not permit private camps back then.

Neeta, police allege, closely communicated with key accused Singh and Tripathi of these drives, while her husband provided support when needed. Police say the doses used in the two drives in Kandivali and MIDC might have been the real vaccines.

Shivam hospital had got permission from BMC to operate as a private Covid vaccination centre from March 5 to April 28. In March and April, BMC supplied 23,350 doses to Shivam. The hospital recorded it had used up 22,826 doses. BMC’s Assistant Commissioner Sanjay Kurhade claimed they took back the unused doses. The hospital, police said, had retained the empty vials.

The Dentist

Four months back, the Patarias had rented a portion of their hospital to dentist Manish Tripathi.

In 2020, Tripathi, a Kandivali resident, had begun a coaching institute, Knowledge Centre for Educational Planning (KCEP) Pvt Ltd, where he provided online coaching to medical and engineering students who wished to study abroad. He also offered them placements. Most of his students were from poor families.

This year, he decided to rent an office space and had met the Patarias when he became their tenant. The Patarias discussed the vaccination idea with Tripathi. According to the police, he readily agreed to participate in a plot that would bring in extra bucks. The doctor couple provided the empty vials for the fake drives and Tripathi had filled them with saline water.

The Assistants

By May the group grew. Tripathi allegedly roped in three of his students — Karim Akbar Ali, Roshni Patel, and Ajit Benwasi — to transport and administer the vaccines, and his driver to pose as a doctor at one vaccination camp.

A Bihar native and son of a farmer, Ali, 19, lives with his uncle in Mumbai. He would transport the vials to vaccination camps. Patel and Benwasi, meanwhile, had been trained by Tripathi to administer the vaccines.

Apart from giving these students Rs 250 per drive, Tripathi allegedly promised them better marks and placement in exchange of their service.

Investigators said Patel and Benwasi were ignorant that they were administering fake vaccines, but claimed Ali knew about the scam.

The Unemployed

Like the students, Seema Ahuja and Shrikant Mane were looking for ways to make some money but police suspect they were also oblivious of the scam. The two had lost their job at travel agency Cox & Kings during the pandemic. Ahuja had tried to start her own travel agency, but it had not succeeded. The two later joined Singh as event managers for the vaccination drive.

As a clerk at MMA, Singh had to arrange for retreats and official trips for the doctor-members of the medical association and had then often interacted with the two for booking travel tickets, the police said.

During his stint at the medical association, Singh had also come in touch with Sanjay Gupta, an employee at an event management company SP Events. Gupta was asked to help with logistic support for the vaccination camps.

As the group moved from one drive to the next, they improved their execution style. In the early days, they went in civil clothes, took handwritten notes of beneficiary names and their Aadhaar card details.

By June, the alleged scammers grew into their roles. Those handling the vaccines began wearing white coats. Gupta organised drives abiding by physical-distancing norms and with registration counters. At the end of each drive, they took cash payment.

The Marketing man

In May, Singh roped in Rajesh Pandey, a marketing executive in Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani hospital. Pandey would allegedly give the impression that he was acting on behalf of the hospital.

Hospital COO Dr Santosh Shetty said Pandey, in fact, had no role in nor any access to the hospital’s vaccination programme.

The modus operandi was simple: approach an acquaintance, gain their confidence, conduct a drive, take money in cash (Rs 800-1,200 per dose), and promise certificates later.

Pandey would reach out to patients he was acquainted with in Kokilaben hospital. A police officer said, “Harischandra Mishra, who is a trustee of Aditya College, was admitted in Kokilaben hospital few years ago. His son came in touch with Pandey. When vaccines were low in supply, the son called up Pandey to enquire if vaccines could be made available, and that is how they got trapped. Pandey contacted Gupta who then contacted Singh.”

***

What helped this group strike so many deals was people’s desperation to get vaccinated quickly at a time of great shortage of vaccines in the government centres. The victims were educated professionals who did not suspect they would be scammed over something as tightly controlled by the government at all levels as the anti-corona virus vaccine.

The Bank Manager

Bank of Baroda’s Malad branch manager Pramod Kumar had suffered from severe Covid infection last August. Having been hospitalised for nine days on oxygen support, Kumar was wary of re-infection. Staffers would panic when the tiny branch office got crowded with customers. So, when Singh, an account holder since 2013, offered a vaccination camp for those working at the branch, Kumar jumped at the opportunity. He got 40 people vaccinated at the branch on May 25. Until now, not one has received a vaccine certificate.

The Bank of Baroda vaccination was perhaps the first in the series of fake drives, police suspect. The bank employees paid Rs 800 per dose.

As the accused moved to scam more people, they increased their rates to Rs 1,200 per dose. In total, there were 11 more drives after this, until the lid blew off the scam.

The CEO

Hardik Shah, 38, CEO of the Mansi Share and Stock Advertisers (MSSA) was approached by Ahuja and Mane, who allegedly got his number from the database of Cox & Kings. Shah had booked tickets from the travel company two years back.

Shah had readily agreed to vaccinate his staff and some residents from his society on May 26 and 27 and paid Rs 5.14 lakh. They received 100 forged vaccine certificates.

Now, Shah says, “Insaniyat se bharosa uthgaya (I have lost my trust in humanity). If I had knowledge that the vaccine is fake, why would I take it myself and also give it to my mother, two sisters-in-law and nephew? All I did was cared for my people and residents of the society where we are based.”

The Housing Society

A fake vaccination drive was held on May 30 till June 6 in Kandivali’s Hiranandani Heritage. Pandey had reached out to a society member in May. He assured them that Kokilaben hospital would conduct the drive. The Hiranandani Heritage Residents Welfare Association’s 15-member committee had approved the drive and registered 390 people across 435 flats, including maids and drivers and residents.

Resident Nainesh Vasant said it was their first experience of vaccination and when they heard Kokilaben hospital was conducting it, they agreed. On May 30, they paid Rs 1,260 per dose in cash, totalling to Rs 4.9 lakh, to Singh. Pandey was present throughout the drive and had assured the vaccine certificates would come in a few days. The society claims they did not know an MoU with or an intimation to BMC was mandatory.

The Unravelling

It was at Hirnanandani that the plot finally began to unravel. When over 390 people immunised at the May 30 drive started demanding vaccination certificates, Singh dipped into his contacts in various hospitals. He reached out to Chandan Singh and Nitin Mode, data entry operators in Lifeline hospital, to make illegal entries on CoWIN app to create certificates. They in turn roped in Gudiya Yadav, an operator at the NESCO jumbo centre. Yadav, the police said, was forced to help because Chandan had helped her and some of her friends to get the job at NESCO.

The three illegally used login ids of these hospitals to feed data of these residents and generate vaccine certificate. They thought that with thousands of entries, a few hundred would go unnoticed. Eventually, for drives conducted later in June, they created more fake certificates.

It was here that they made a mistake — the scamsters did not realise that the vaccine certificates had date and time of the day they logged in, and not of the date when the fake drives were conducted.

Also, the hospitals’ names printed on the certificates were Nanavati, Lifeline and NESCO, since the login was done from the systems at these hospitals. The wrong dates and the absence of Kokilaben hospital on the certificates finally alerted Hiranandani residents. Kakani said the BMC is now planning to aggressively open more government vaccination centres so that people got easy access to vaccines and were not scammed.

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