10 Sep 2021  |   05:24am IST

Scams and scamsters

Scams and scamsters

Gladstone D’Costa

Scams are more varied and numerous than all the stars in the heavens. They are as universal as they are dated, with the earliest known scams going back to 1830. Since then, there have been thousands over the years. Most common are the “Ponzi Schemes” after Charles Ponzi. These claim to be investment opportunities offering fantastic returns irrespective of economic or market conditions. Ponzi started with arbitrage trading in postal reply coupons, and soon branched off into financial fraud promising incredible returns on investments. Such schemes have no investments taking place. 

They merely use the money "invested" by new participants to pay existing investors; taking from Peter to pay Paul, and therefore rely on a constant stream of new investors being recruited. If this recruitment fails, and new members stop joining, as is bound to happen eventually, the scheme falls apart, because pay-outs are no longer possible. 

After losing up to $15 million and ruining six banks, the government charged Ponzi with mail fraud and sentenced him to nine years in prison. Then came Bernard Madoff who started off as chairman of NASDAQ with an enviable reputation for financial management. He then embarked on a career that spanned 20 years, involved a $65 billion rip-off, with a recorded 30,000 victims in 120 countries; and was eventually found guilty in 2009 and sentenced to 150 years in prison; exposed only because of the 2008 global financial crisis when he was unable to repay investors the $7 billion, they were trying to withdraw; and drove his son to suicide. Refused bail in spite of being terminally ill, he died on 14th April 2021. 

Even the Chinese had their own “Madoff” in the form of Ezubao, who skimmed off $7.6 billion from investors in February 2016. The most recent case came from Australia in November 2020.  Melissa Caddick defrauded investors of $30 million, and disappeared. Till date only her decomposed amputated foot has been found 400km from her home.

Scamsters, like child molesters, often target known contacts, even relatives; as occurred in a personal experience though of a limited nature. My remittances from UK, to my elderly parents were siphoned off and diverted to “Anubhav Teak Plantations”. Needless to say, we never saw the teak, the trees or the amazing returns promised; and litigation was a waste of time.

A variation of the Ponzi scheme is multi-level marketing. There are others like the strawberry farms, time-share holiday schemes, lottery prizes, expensive gifts from abroad from social media friends often with a linked marriage proposal, the call center IRS fraud in the US, and a whole plethora of internet deceptions like phishing, malware links, SIM card swap, ransomware hacks, trojans and bank card cloning. The estimated loss from fraud is $40 to $50 billion annually; and this is a modest figure. It does not include for example, the costs of avoiding fraud, like cyber security. But it is the healthcare scams that are most revolting because the perpetrators feed like parasites, on a vulnerable population, frequently elderly and poor, seeking relief from health problems. 

In one week, law enforcement authorities all over the world seized over 9 million units of counterfeit and illicit medicines. This was the 14th time that Interpol organized the global “Operation Pangea”, which started in 2008, and has become an annual exercise. Every year, Interpol coordinates a seven-day initiative that targets the sale of counterfeit and unauthorized medical products. This year, officials in 92 countries arrested 277 people, shut down more than 113,000 fraudulent web links belonging to fake online pharmacies, and seized fake and unapproved oncology drugs, vitamins, erectile dysfunction pills and painkillers. COVID-19 related products, like unauthorized COVID-19 testing kits, and 5lakh fake masks, accounted for more than half of the medical products seized. 

Closer to home, authorities in UP shut down a fake drug manufacturing operation and seized counterfeit azithromycin and favipiravir, both of which are used to treat COVID-19 patients. Police also discovered 17,000 counterfeit tablets of favipiravir in a pharmacy in Cuttack, Odisha. Aspen Biopharma sold starch tablets as Posaconazole (used for treatment of mucurmycosis) for Rs.1000 per tablet.

390 members of Hiranandani society in Mumbai received Covid vaccine jabs at a camp organised as a social service program; they paid Rs.1260 for each dose. Other camps were traced to Thane, Borivali, Kandivali, Andheri, Khar, Samatnagar and even as far off as West Bengal’s Sonarpur, Amherst Street and Kasba areas, with fake IAS officers for good measure. Till date 2064 victims have been identified in Mumbai alone. Suspicions were aroused when vaccination certificates were either not issued, or issued with wrong dates, timing or location, and journalists barred from taking photographs. It eventually transpired that empty vaccine vials were refiled with saline and used for these camps. 

The vials were traced to Shivam Hospital, and the two owners arrested along with 9 others, including a marketing executive from Kokilaben Hospital. Apex Care Hospital, Sangli was another identified source of fraud. Even the WHO has issued an alert against fake vaccines bearing the batch number 4121Z040, with missing or fake expiry dates, in 2cc vials unlike the genuine 10cc ones. Investigations are still ongoing. Rs 12.4 lakhs in cash were seized and accounts frozen. Charges have been registered under Section 308, (culpable homicide) as well as cheating, forgery and the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. I strongly believe that these thugs should be given maximum sentences, and jail terms should not run concurrently but sequentially. Society must make an example of such criminals and put an end to Man’s inhumanity to Man. 

At the end of the day, we must never forget the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is “.

(The author is a founder member of VHAG)