Pune City Police has unearthed a major online extortion racket operating through ‘loan apps’, suspected to be run by ‘masterminds’ who are from China and Dubai.
While probing two complaints of online extortion against loan app operatives, filed by Pune- based victims, the Cyber police station recently busted two fake call centres in Bengaluru. So far, 18 persons have been arrested in connection with the racket. Police have recovered data of about one lakh citizens across India who may have been targeted by loan app racketeers.
Meanwhile, police have observed a multi-fold rise in loan app crimes. Police said in 2020, cyber police stations received 699 complaints of such crimes and the number increased to 928 the next year. Till August 2022, the Cyber police station had received as many as 3,151 complaints from people harassed by loan app operatives.
During a press conference on Friday, Pune Police Commissioner Amitabh Gupta said in the last two months, an average of 25 complaints linked to loan apps were being received daily.
According to police, several unregistered micro-finance companies have set up online loan applications or loan apps. People claiming to be working for these apps call people randomly and ask them to download the app on their cell phones. Once the app is downloaded, its operatives gain access to the contact list, photographs and videos saved in the cell phones.
Police said some time after the app is downloaded, the user is given a loan ranging between Rs 500 to Rs 7,000 on immediate basis. Sometimes, money is transferred to the bank accounts of the app users, even if they do not ask for a loan.
Within a week, operatives of the loan app starts making phone calls, demanding repayment of the loan with an interest rate ranging from 30 to 300 per cent. If the repayment is not done, the operatives morph the photographs of loan app users with obscene content and circulate it to the people in their contact list.
Police said users are harassed so severely that they are forced to transfer the extortion money to different bank accounts. The money is later withdrawn from the bank accounts by the key racketeers, based in different parts of the country and also abroad.
Investigation has revealed that app racketeers worked in different teams. One team procures SIM cards, a technical team sets up the app, another team provides bank accounts for collecting the extortion amount online. There is a separate team for running call centres to contact citizens. Another team manages the huge amount of extortion money obtained from several bank accounts.
Two victims of the loan app racket, a man and a woman based in Pune, recently lodged first information reports at the Cyber police station.
Senior Police Inspector Meenal Supe Patil said the man received phone calls regarding the loan app in September 2021. After he downloaded the app, he started getting threat calls for repayment of the loan. “The victim was harassed… till June this year, he transferred Rs 13.87 lakh into different bank accounts operated by loan app racketeers,” said the officer.
In the second case, a woman was threatened and abused by loan app operatives and Rs 1.11 lakh was extorted from her between February and June this year. Police said the woman was given a loan with her consent from ‘GB Lend’ and ‘Handy Loan’ applications. Later, she was harassed severely and the operatives circulated her morphed images to people on her contact list.
After carrying out an investigation for the two weeks, police arrested 18 persons in the two cases in separate actions
Seven persons – Swapnil Nagtilak (29), Shrikrushna Gaikwad (26), Dhiraj Punekar (36), Pramod Ransingh (43), all from Solapur, Samuel Kumar (40) of Bengaluru, Mujib Kandiyal (42) and Mohammed Maniyat (32) from Kerala — were arrested for procuring bank accounts and SIM cards, used in the loan app crimes, in the name of labourers based in Pune, Solapur, Latur, Jalgaon and other cities.
Police recovered 56 bank accounts, 167 credit and debit cards, 48 SIM cards with cell phones and 30 other open SIM cards, 15 PAN cards, 11 Aadhaar cards, four voting cards, computers, laptops and other items from them. The investigation revealed that the labourers were totally unaware that bank accounts, ATM cards, cheque books and SIM cards were obtained in their names and are being used for internet banking by loan app fraudsters.
Police also arrested 11 persons connected to fake call centres in Bengaluru – Vighnesh Manjunath (19), Ganesh Subbaraidu (26), Akash M V (19), Shraddha Gauda (25), Parvati Santosh Das (39), Ashwini Murugan (24), Shilpa Gauda (25), Priya S (23)and Deepika L (20), Sayyad Pasha(23) and Mubarak Baig (22). Search is on for several wanted accused, including a woman identified as Seema Gauda.
During searches, 10 SIM cards, mobile phones and other electronic items were recovered from the accused. Police suspect there may be more such fake call centres linked to loan apps operating in the country.
“We have recovered data of about one lakh citizens across India, who may have been targeted by loan app racketeers. An amount of about Rs 70 lakh from bank accounts used in the crimes has been seized. We will be investigating the matter further …central agencies are also involved,” said Pune police chief Gupta.
Asked about the masterminds, Gupta said the probe has revealed links to suspects based in China and Dubai.
DCP (cyber) Bhagyashree Navatake said there was data on several foreign nationals linked to loan app crimes and further probe was on. Police sources said attempts are on to zero in on the main accused, who has links with China.
Probe is on to know how the money amounting to crores of rupees obtained from the loan app racket was utilised by the arrested and wanted accused. Police are also trying to find out who provided mobile phone numbers of citizens to the accused. Investigation is also on to know who created the loan apps in the first place.
Earlier this month, Sohail Shaikh (25), a resident of Viman Nagar in Pune, who had borrowed money from a loan app, died by suicide. Probe revealed that he was threatened and abused by loan app operatives for repayment of the money.
A young woman, Gauri Dange (25), allegedly murdered her 70-year-old grandmother Sulochana, at her house in Warje on September 13. Investigation revealed that Gauri had taken a loan from an online credit platform for expenses. To repay that loan, she had taken a loan from another loan app. Operatives of the loan app were calling her repeatedly for repayment of the amount. Police suspect that Dange murdered her grandmother so that she could rob Rs 36,000 and a gold chain to repay the loan.
Inspector Kumar Ghadge said probe is on to know whether the arrested accused are linked to the loan apps downloaded by Shaikh and Dange.
Police suspect that there are multiple gangs running loan app rackets in the country. Police have asked citizens to be aware and avoid responding to suspicious phone calls about loan apps.