Hyderabad to Delhi & UP: Tracing the Remdesivir Black Market Chain
A Hyderabad based software employee who needed remdesivir for 22 members of his family was cheated in Aligarh.
'K', a software employee at Cognizant-Hyderabad, who does not want to reveal his identity, came across the cell number +91-9406910131 on 22 April, in a WhatsApp group run by some friends. The forwarded message in the Hyderabad group read, “Remdesivir available in Lucknow! 946910131 #verified 4.19 pm 19 April. Prescription mandatory”.
K passed on the number to his eldest brother who lives in New Delhi. Their 68-year-old father had tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted in a private hospital in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. As the hospital had asked the family to arrange six vials of remdesivir, K’s brother made a call to the number.
“He called the vendor on Whatsapp, as cell phone calls were not going through to the number. The vendor demanded Rs 51,000 for six vials of the medicine,” K told The Quint. An advance too was demanded – Rs 20,000. The family “decided to take a calculated risk” and transferred the amount.
The vendor did not turn up the next day for delivery. Calls to his number went unanswered.
When Fraudsters Advertise
In Hyderabad, several banners advertising sale of remdesivir have come up overnight in front of hospitals that treat COVID-19 patients. In other cases, numbers are advertised on Twitter and Facebook. Most ask to be contacted over Whatsapp.
The vendors claim to have contacts across the country, especially in New Delhi and UP where COVID surge is massive. On 23 April, a total of 348 people died of COVID-19 in Delhi and 196 COVID-19 patients died in UP.
“Whatsapp has end-to-end encryption which could prevent the easy identification of the location of these fraudulent vendors. It is also easy to get rid of the Whatsapp number after cheating those in need,” K said.
The Whatsapp group in which the fraudster’s number had first appeared claimed not to know the origin of the message that K had found.
“We were in desperate need of the medicine as the hospital in Aligarh had exhausted its stock. We clutched at every straw including this number,” K said.
To K’s family the fraudulent remdesivir vendor had brought relief for a short while.
Twenty Two Lives at Stake
it was not one but 22 lives that K was trying to save when he reached out to the fraudulent vendor.
Apart from his 68-year-old father, three of his uncles who live in Delhi have contracted COVID-19. All of them are in their 70s. His father’s sister who was 80, had died in March after contracting COVID-19. Her family of four have also now tested positive.
“We are three brothers and a sister in my family. In my uncles’ families there are four adult members each. In my aunt's family too there are four adult members. Two children too are affected,” K rued. All have tested positive for COVID-19.
Under such circumstances the Hyderabad helplines which have been advertising the fraudulent number seemed to be the only way out.
“We were planning to buy more vials of remdesivir from the same vendor because almost all members of our family need the medicine,” K said.
His eldest brother, who had contracted the disease from the ailing father was the one who waited for hours on 23 April in the Aligarh hospital for the vendor who never turned up. “My younger brother has developed shortness of breath and he needed the medicine even more than my father. While waiting for the vendor, my eldest brother too developed shortness of breath and was incapacitated for a few hours,” he added.
The Network’s Operation
The Quint reached out to volunteers who have been helping patients and their relatives reach remdesivir black market vendors in Hyderabad, Delhi and UP, to detail out the chain of these transactions.
Here is what we learnt.
Scamsters have been sending Whatsapp messages that include names, numbers and location to volunteer groups. “When the numbers are forwarded without verification or just telephonic verification without verifying the user experience, then the scam acquires 'legitimacy'," a volunteer said.
Remdesivir which has a Maximum Retail Price (MRP) of Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,500 gets sold for Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000 per vial across the country, the source said. “I myself have made these calls to verify the vendors. If the patient or the relative is ready to pay, I pass on the number. As for scamsters, it is difficult to sift them out because everyone needs the medicine and no one has the time to verify,” the Hyderabad based volunteer explained.
Most scamsters report that the medicine is out of stock and refuse to repay the deposit, he added.
Why are Delhi and UP numbers circulating in Hyderabad?
Scamsters Target Floating Population
Fraudsters have been targeting people who have relatives in Delhi and UP because of the caseload in these states, volunteers in Hyderabad said.
“When a Hyderabad group gets a Delhi or UP number, it is difficult to verify the source. The scamsters have been taking advantage of this situation,” the Hyderabad volunteer said. Hyderabad police have been actively looking for those involved in COVID-19 related scams, but jurisdiction issues prevent them from taking investigation to other states.
“What struck me the most when I was defrauded was that people are using this massive tragedy to milk others. It is inhuman,” said K to The Quint. Neither K nor his family will lodge a police complaint. “Our first priority is to get the medicine. We are still searching for a vendor,” he said.
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