34-year-old Manpreet Madan and her family had made Sunday plans to dine at Shiv Sagar, a popular franchise restaurant in the city of Mumbai, and were trying to book a table. As most of us would do, they Googled the contact number of the restaurant and dialled the number that showed up. They tried to call the restaurant twice, but no one answered the phone. But a little while later, their call was returned from the same number by a man who claimed to be Deepak Mishra, a waiter at Shiv Sagar, who told them that they would have to wait for at least 45 minutes to get a table. Instead, he told them, they could pay him a small sum of Rs 25 and skip the queue altogether, an idea that appealed to Madan. But that’s where things got shady.
According to The Indian Express, the waiter said that they would have to send him the money through Google Pay, a digital wallet app that allows users the option to request and pay money online. Mishra said she would get a message on her mobile phone which she would have to forward to another phone number that would then send her another link on which she could make the payment. Madan then said she received a message, which she then forwarded to a second number from where she received a second message that contained a Google page link which had ‘Enter UPI Pin’ and ‘Submit’ options, which is usually standard while making transactions on Google Pay.
Except, once she had entered her UPI pin, she also effectively gave them access to her account, only to realise that she had been scammed. Instead of taking Rs 25, the scammers had swindled a sum of Rs 85,000 ($ 1,191) from her account. In a state of shock and confusion, Madan quickly called Mishra back, ready to scream at the restaurant manager, but he promptly hung up and stopped answering her calls altogether. Madan then rushed to the restaurant, where it was revealed that the number she had found online and called on never belonged to Shiv Sagar.
Madan has now registered a case at the Santa Cruz police station, and an initial investigation into the matter has traced the origin of the number she called on to West Bengal. But as unfortunate as this incident is, it’s become pretty common across Mumbai. From wine stores to banks to NGOs, there have been countless cases of fraudsters changing the numbers of services listed online and people, for the sake of convenience, end up trusting these scammers only to lose large sums of money. Sources say that this is done through an app that lets the user access the Google search engine and tamper with contact numbers so that all calls are routed to the scammer.
While such cases are slowly coming to light, action on this front has not been as effective as it should be. The Juhu branch of Shiv Sagar, the restaurant the woman was trying to reach, knew that their number had been messed around with online and had even filed a complaint with the police and Google. Yet, the fraudulent number was listed online until as late as Wednesday, November 6.
A Google spokesperson said, “We work hard to fight against spammers and protect people from scams. When these fake numbers are reported, we remove them.” But considering how easy it is to alter details on Google, it’s about time a system to weed out scammers was put in place.
As authorities work to fix this blip, in the meantime maybe we can all keep in mind that sharing OTPs or UPI pins with anyone, no matter who they claim to be and no matter what they are promising in return, is just a really bad idea in general.
*Conversion: $1 = Rs 71.31
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.