A mass-marketing fraud in the name of Reliance Jio has been luring in unsuspecting victims across the country, duping them of lakhs of rupees.
These frauds, which are unique to India – owing to its rapidly expanding mobile market – trap victims by offering to “lease” out their land at exorbitant rents (Rs 15-35,000 per month) for setting up mobile communication towers, and also offer a handsome one-time advance payment (Rs 10-25 lakh).
The catch: A “small” processing fee anywhere in the range of Rs 10-50,000. This “small” fee accrues to lakhs and even crores with an increase in the number of victims.
And unlike other internet-based frauds, which are often run by unorganised groups for short stints, the ‘Jio tower scam’ appears to be a highly efficient, organised racket.
It has a well-laid out victim acquisition strategy, fail-safe contingencies and a modus operandi designed to evade legal and police scrutiny as far as possible.
How It Works
The fraud, however, also extends online.
A simple Google search “Jio tower” returns a litany of hoax websites masquerading as authentic Jio portals – they use the official logo, name and in some cases, even the colours of the original website.
It is worth noting that the first four results are Google ads, which makes unsuspecting people more vulnerable, as they are more likely to trust these websites.
The quality of the websites and the “literature” provided detailing the process can also explain why so many people are falling for this scam – for to the untrained eye, a major conglomerate like Reliance is offering the scheme.
“Since the Reliance Jio users are struggling with data speed and network problem of Reliance Jio, the company Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited has decided to install more than 6,000 North Infratel across the country and shall shortly issue the detailed official guidelines to install Jio tower in your Plot, Roof top, Field, Market etc, places (sic),” reads one of the websites.
MOST WEBSITES SHARE A SIMILAR SOURCE CODE
In fact, a PublicWWW analysis – a source code-based search engine – revealed that this particular website’s source code has been replicated in 14 other domains online – highlighting the massive scale of operations.
Following acquisition of information about a potential victim, they call him/her and ask them to provide documents for verification.
A tactful ‘customer care agent’ urges the potential client to submit certain documents via WhatsApp. All other queries fall on deaf ears.
The Quint reached out to an agent from one such hoax website and we were asked to provide a copy of the land agreement, PAN card, Aadhaar card and a location of the plot via WhatsApp.
“Our engineers will inspect your site via satellite and we will get back to you only after your documents are verified,” an agent said.
Queries on whether the documents could be submitted via post, or in person, and if the verification could be done by an agent were met with a curt “WhatsApp only”.
‘A Small Processing Fee’
After you send across the documents, and a bogus verification is done ‘via satellite’, you are required to submit a ‘small processing fee’ (somewhere in the range of Rs 10-50,000).
The same can also be packaged as documentation fee, tax charges, government fees etc.
If you seem hesitant, the staff behind this racket are trained to persuade you further.
Anil Singh Bhadoria from Madhya Pradesh, one of the victims of the scam, recounts: “After I expressed my apprehensions about the so-called satellite inspection, and demanded that I meet with an engineer in person, I was sent a cheque, or rather the image of one, worth Rs 10 lakh via WhatsApp. And even after I said no, I would get frequent calls and invoices of the proposed transaction.”
“I received a call from the ‘Reliance Jio tower installation’ team, telling me about an attractive opportunity to earn Rs 25,000 per month and an advance of Rs 15 lakh in exchange for installing a mobile tower on my empty plot. When I agreed, they asked for documentation. After this, they asked for Rs 14,500 as processing fee, which I paid... that was the mistake,” says Madhuban Bihari Sharma from Prayagraj, one of the victims.
“A few days later, they called again asking for Rs 52,500 more. That’s when my son caught onto the scam and thankfully, we didn’t pay that amount,” he added.
Sharma’s story, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. Countless others have suffered a similar fate.
“I feel I was lucky. For so many people have called me after seeing a complaint I filed online... they had even paid the Rs 52,500 second installment and were asking if Jio had installed the tower on my plot or not. So many others were looted like this,” Sharma added.
Sharma said that he had also received an invoice of his payment on a Reliance Jio letterhead, which he provided a copy of.
Harmanjot Singh, another victim, was asked to pay Rs 24,000 in documentation fees. He said, “There are countless others like me. They all say they’ll file a complaint but no one follows through.”
The total amount extorted by these fraudsters from just the handful of people The Quint reached out to ran into several lakhs.
One can only imagine the extent of the problem, going by consumer complaint forums that are full of similar cases.
News reports from across the country also highlight the scale and reach of this scam:
How They Evade Police and Legal Scanner
An interesting fact that emerged after interacting with the victims was that the bank accounts they were asked to submit to were in the names of common people and not Reliance. Also, they were never from the same state as the victim.
This inter-state nature of the scam is a fail-safe measure to ensure that it becomes increasingly difficult to report and/or investigate these crimes.
“I tried to report the crime to the local police station but they were reluctant to lodge an official complaint as the bank account of the perpetrator was in Gurugram. I was also dissuaded to pursue the case as the amount was not that much,” said Bhadoria, a victim from Madhya Pradesh.
The fact that the amounts being extorted are significantly small and rarely, if ever, exceed Rs 50-60,000 helps the perpetrators evade the police/legal scanner as all instances are seen as cases of individual, small-scale frauds.
And, as it became evident from all the victims’ accounts, the perpetrators change their mobile numbers frequently – often right after the initial payment is made.
The Quint reached out to Reliance Jio for a comment on the matter and asked about the company’s plan to curb this menace.
Although Reliance provided no official comment on the scams, it pointed out that the company routinely releases information to sensitise its users about these scams – via SMS communication, a cautionary notice on their website, and public notices in newspapers etc.
Further, Jio said that it flags any fake website that it comes across with the concerned authority and initiates prompt and appropriate legal action to block/take down the hoax site.
However, none of the websites The Quint looked into had been taken down at the time of writing this article.
Is There a Legal Route to Getting a Tower Installed?
The Quint reached out to Jio’s mobile communication infrastructure partner, Indus Towers, for a response. Although no official communication could be established (any reply to The Quint’s official communication will be updated here) we were informed that the only way to acquire such a tower is to register your land on the website and wait for the company to call you back in case there is a requirement.
Everything is done as per the DoT guidelines, an Indus Towers’ representative said.
WHAT DO THE DoT GUIDELINES SAY?
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had issued a public notice regarding the forgery in mobile tower installation.
Acknowledging the ongoing scams, the department said that such companies were “issuing fake ‘No objection certification’ permission for the installation of a tower issued by Department of Telecommunications”.
The notice clearly states that the DoT was not “directly or indirectly involved in levying any tax/ fees on leasing the premises for installation of a mobile tower or for issuing any No Objection certification for the purpose.”
Here is the DoT advisory issued to state governments on the installation of mobile towers:
LIST OF LICENSED VENDORS
Another way to verify if the vendor claiming to install the tower is authentic or not is to check whether it is licensed and registered with the DoT.
See here for a full list of registered and licensed vendors.
Google Earning Revenue Off Fraudulent Websites?
The Quint also reached out to Google to enquire into how and why these fraudulent websites were featured on the Google Ads platform.
(UPDATED) A Google spokesperson informed The Quint that the company is looking into the matter and issued the following statement:
"We have a strict set of policies that govern the types of ads we do and don’t allow on Google in order to protect people from misleading, inappropriate, or harmful ads. We suspend and terminate advertisers who break our policies – in 2017, we took down more than 3.2 billion ads. We’re constantly updating our policies as we see new threats emerge.”
How to Spot a Fake Website/Scam
There are some easy steps you can take to check the authenticity of a website:
- HTTP = Bad, HTTPS = Good: Never trust an HTTP website with your personal information. The ‘S’ in https:// stands for secure and indicates that the website uses encryption to transfer data, protecting it from hackers.
- Check for easy markers such as spelling mistakes, typos, broken links and site loops.
- Look for the copyright information at the bottom of the page. That usually helps.
- Look up the domain age: Fake websites usually don’t last long and have fairly new domains. You can look up more information about the domain using Domain Big Data.
- Look for reliable contact information: Look for several ways to contact the company (phone, email, live chat, address) and try them out.
- Walk away from deals that are too good to be true: And last but not least, know that nobody will hand you cash or deals that are too good to be true. Just walk away.
(With inputs from Malavika Balasubramaniam)
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