Edtech entrepreneur Ramanuj Mukherjee has initiated a legal platform, Lawyers Against CoviFrauds, with over 130 lawyers on-board helping victims of frauds related to Covid-19, and help the police put the miscreants behind bars.
It all started when Mukherjee noticed an increasing number of complaints on social media about people being cheated over supply of medicines, oxygen cylinders, etc. “I run a helpline for online frauds and cyber scams on my blog (blog.ipleaders.in), so I know how difficult it is to register a cybercrime complaint. Police are generally reluctant to register a complaint on online frauds because to investigate they have to visit areas outside their jurisdiction,” says Mukherjee, a resident of Saket. “This is a borderless crime, so we must have borderless police, but all of that needs governmental changes,” he says.
The 33-year-old lawyer-turned-edtech entrepreneur (Founder of LawSikho, edtech firm) decided to do something about it, but realised he couldn’t single-handedly manage such massive scale of work. So, he put up a post on Linkedin: Lots of people are cheating patients and their family members in the name of supplying oxygen, remdesivir, tocilizumab and other necessities.Thinking of setting up a legal cell to take these people to task. Anyone wants to collaborate?
The response from the legal fraternity was heart-warming. Several lawyers and law students quickly enlisted themselves, and hence was formed the group Lawyers Against CoviFraud. The members are from across the country, each offering free legal advice and aid in strategising or filing complaints on behalf of victims.Victims can mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and volunteers will register the police complaints. In case of police inaction, the matter will be escalated to the SP and the Magistrate.
Jagannath Nanda, Advocate, Supreme Court, explains that it starts with making fake IDs of established pharma companies and then contacting people in need on social media. “They use genuine logos of the companies, but give their own account details for the payment. Those in distress don’t check the veracity, and eager to get the medicine or equipment quickly, they make the payment, after which the supplier goes missing.”
Generally, the payment is done through a UPI app. “What people don’t know is that each payment app has a built in capacity to raise a complaint. In case of UPI, the P2P credit is instantaneous, so our time window gets constricted. The victim has to raise the dispute almost immediately after realising he or she has been scammed,” says Subramanian K Rajaseshan, who was with NatWest Markets (erstwhile The Royal Bank of Scotland) as a Vice President till March 2021.
Maximum frauds in Delhi-NCR
While the group is getting complaints from all over India, the major chunk of the complaints are being received from Delhi-NCR. In fact, the case of a 75-year-old woman registered in Kolkata led to the unearthing of a huge racket having its origins in Delhi.“About 15 cases have been registered with police across India, with more coming in. There are also cases wherein the victim refuses to file a complaint as their patient already died due to Covid,” says Advocate Heena Joshi, who practices at Saket District Courts.
“Our aim is to not just file criminal complaints against the fraudsters, but also get the victim’s hard-earned money back,” says Rachit Kumar Srivastava, Practicing Lawyer and Partner at ILA&C Law, who is dealing with white collar crime since 13 years.
While the lawyers have been working diligently driven by their desire to help people, it is the outdated police system which, they say, is a huge hindrance. “Police should act in a humane manner. In fact, considering the pandemic, certain formalities should be relaxed for such fraud cases. Sometimes, we have to register the complaint on behalf of the victim as the victim is patient and is unable to visit a police station. Police should not create problems in such cases,” says Sangkrito Roy Chaudhuri, Advocate at Lex Arjava LLP.
Lawyers Against CoviFrauds is also addressing black marketeering of medicines and oxygen concentrators. Mukherjee gradually wants to turn this initiative into an institution addressing the menace of cybercrime that has seen an exponential rise in recent years.