Identity Theft or Theft of Identity Theft? A new scam to watch out for

TK Arun

Can an Indian startup come up with a solution that detects an attempt to make a call using a spoofed number? Identity theft is a common enough danger in these times, when everyday living is digitalised but human behaviour stays in the analog era, if not in the stone age.

A new scam is to misappropriate identity theft, rather than identity itself, and use the fear of your identity having been stolen to shake you down. For example, you might be told that your identity was used by someone else for a nefarious purpose that is currently being investigated by the police. People should stay vigilant. And phone companies should guard against numbers being spoofed.

You get a call from an unsaved number. A recorded message informs you your package has been returned undelivered and if you stay on the line, you could speak to Customer Service. Customer Service clarifies on being queried, as to who they are, that they are speaking from a reputed courier company. And then brings you the happy news that you have a notice from Mumbai Police regarding a packet that you sent to an address in Malaysia three days ago. The consignment contained contraband and has been impounded by Customs under theft.

When you explain that you have not sent anything to any address in Malaysia and that you are in Delhi, and not in Mumbai on the day when you are supposed to have booked your parcel to Malaysia, the agent gives you details of your alleged illegal consignment: you sent across a wallet made of tiger skin, and tiger skin is contraband.

Aadhaar here, Aadhaar there as Identity

How come Customs thinks I, and not someone else, sent the parcel? Sir, a consignment can be booked only when the sender shows proof of ID. The helpful Customer Service agent then tells you that you have probably been the victim of identity theft and that the matter is serious. Have you ever given anyone a copy of your Aadhaar or driving licence, say while checking in at a hotel? The question gives.

The consignment was booked with your ID and phone number. And, if you did not provide it, someone has stolen your identity. Have you, at any point of time, handed over a copy of your Aadhaar or some other ID document to a stranger in order, say, check into a hotel?

Try getting admitted to a hospital these days, and they will probably demand a copy of your Aadhaar. Since you have other things on your mind while at the hospital counter, you comply rather than ask questions. Now, Customer Service has overlaid a thick coat of menace over what you had thought was a routine bit of paperwork.

If you are the nervous type and have reason not to draw the attention of the police to your affairs, you might ask for help. Help might be offered, at a price. If you are the indignant type, you would tell the agent that the Mumbai Police are welcome to investigate, and that you would be happy to cooperate.

Offer of cooperation

If an indignant offer of cooperation is your response, the matter would probably end there. If, on the other hand, you show eagerness to avoid police scrutiny, you might be led up a garden path, strewing money along the way.

When this happened to this writer, he had been pre-warned about identity theft. A similar call had been made to a friend, who had narrated the incident to him. The conclusion we had reached then had been that there was no need to act, unless the police actually made an inquiry.

The call is purportedly from a well-known courier company. You call the number back, and ask who is at the other end. A Korean electronics company’s name is mentioned. TrueCaller informs you that the number belongs to someone in Punjab. The number was probably spoofed, and the good Sardarji in Punjab was an unknowing but actual victim of identity theft, for use of his identity to scam a third party over that person’s supposed identity theft.

A fool and his money

A fool and his money are soon parted: this proposition has more experiential validity in people’s minds than the theory of entropy. To lose money, identity (allegedly), and self-esteem all at once, in the wake of one fell phone call, is hard. It makes far more sense to be informed and vigilant.

Do not take help from strangers at the other end of a phone, whose identity you have not verified. Do not panic at the mention of a police investigation into your conduct. Be conservative about parting with proof of your identity, in general.

Eternal vigilance might well be the price of liberty from being scammed. However, these kinds of phone scams would not take place if phone numbers could not be spoofed. It would be a simple matter to hand over the phone number from which you got the scamster’s call to the police, and the police would notch up a ‘Solved’ against the crime reported, if the number could be traced to the caller.

But all numbers cannot be traced. You would have got calls from numbers that you cannot call back — if you try, you are tersely informed that the number does not exist. Why should this happen? Why can’t the phone companies make sure that calls do not happen from spoofed numbers?

Can an Indian startup come up with a solution that detects an attempt to make a call using a spoofed number? Can India’s telcos pool resources to fund a number of startups to tackle this problem? One or more could succeed and find a global market waiting for them.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

The article was published in The Federal as Are you sure your identity has been robbed? Check first on 24 August 2023.

Read more by the author: PM Modi Lays the Groundwork for 2024 Election Victory from the Red Fort



    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

    View all posts
  • TK Arun

    TK Arun is a Senior Journalist and Columnist based in Delhi.

    View all posts