‘I Googled Apply for Passport And Was Duped’: Kashmir In ‘Dark Web’

Image courtesy, Financial Express

A prevailing network of fraudulent passport application websites has engulfed Kashmir in its grip. With the ban over high-speed 4G internet, the scam web is only thriving and targeting people.

By Romaan Arora

WAITING for an appointment call from the Regional Passport Office (RPO), a middle-aged man was growing restless in his office in Srinagar on a chilly January morning.

The man known for his social sway was recently tricked by a network of fake websites, when he tried to renew his passport.

“I googled ‘online passport form’ and that proved to be fatal,” said Sajjad Ahmad, a victim of the latest passport fraud.

“The website appeared on top of the google search and was identical to the official passport website. Eventually, I filled in all the required information, including my personal details.”

Soon after paying Rs 3000 for his passport renewal, a reference number was generated. I also got instant payment reciept. After waiting for a few days for a call from RPO Srinagar for an appointment, he subsequently decided to visit.

His in-person visit to the RPO Srinagar revealed that he was duped by a small yet dangerous online fraud network in Kashmir.

Ahmad was victimised by the portal: www.portalpassportindia.ind.in. It’s one of the many fake websites that have conned Kashmiris in last few years.

Some other ‘quite popular’, yet fake websites, include— www.indiapassport.orgwww.online-passportindia.com,  www.passportindiaportal.inwww.passport-india.inwww.passport-seva.in and www.applypassport.org.

Popular among Kashmiri techies as ‘Passport Fraud’, a network of websites, impersonating as official passport portals, has been actively deceiving on an average 100-150 Kashmiris each year.

But now, the number is rising, especially after the J&K was stripped of its high-speed internet connectivity on August 4, 2019.

Opening a website on a 2G connection is in itself a big deal. And when the page opens, some fake websites pop up higher in the search result as compared to the official passport portal.

“It’s because of the payment that is made by these counterfeit websites to Google that they always appear on top of the search results,” according to Tahir Ashraf, SSP Cyber Police, Kashmir.

“But there’s no passport racket, not at least in Kashmir,” he added.

So far, the officer said, no complaint has been filed or forwarded to the cyber police department since its foundation last year.

“We act upon complaints,” SSP Tahir told Kashmir Observer. “Be it an ordinary complaint or a complaint from our own ‘reliable sources’.”

Also, he added, a major chunk of these fraud websites operate from outside India.

“Therefore, until and unless a formal complaint is made, no action can be guaranteed.”

The changing nature of the fraudulent websites equally makes it hard for the cyber police to track them down.

“As a result,” the cyber cop said,“the department isn’t able to take suo moto cognizance.”

Inside RPO Srinagar, located on the iconic Dal Lake Boulevard, Passport Officer BrijBhushan Nagar told Kashmir Observer that during his four year tenure, he has only received two passport fraud complaints.

“I forwarded them to the cybercrime department for the necessary cognizance and action,” Bhushan said.

“I ask people that if they notice any wrongdoing regarding passport issuance, come to me and register a complaint, even though it’s not under my jurisdiction.”

But how far the passport officer can go, as cyber crimes are rising daily, he said, showing a recent text message he received.

The text said that Rs 6,00,000 has been sanctioned in the officer’s new credit card.

“But the truth is,” he said, “I never applied for it!”

Amid these daily deceptive messages, the passport officer says that people should directly visit RPO rather than getting their application done from agents operating from their kiosks or cyber cafes.

“Multiple cyber cafes, across the region, ask for Rs 500 or even more as service fee for applying for a passport, from a common citizen. This is contrary to what they should ask, that’s anywhere between Rs 50-100, besides the one time fee of Rs 1500 for a normal passport” he said.

This illegal practice, he added, compels the common Kashmiri to Google the passport websites and fall into the malicious trap.

“Don’t Google anything,” the passport officer warned. “Just visit www.passportindia.gov.in.

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