Inside Kashmir’s Cyberspace—Where Scams Are Fuelling New Combat

Behind the screens, tech-savvy felons are dragging gullible Kashmiris in the sexploitation or scam dragnet like never before. These cybercrimes are only triggering a new battle between cons and cops in Kashmir’s virtual battleground.

WHEN a battery of counterinsurgents arrived to pursue “brigands” sitting behind screens this chilling winter, it was the departure from the usual combat where ‘secret house’ gets blown and nemesis retrieved dead from the smouldering rubble.

In that frigid day of January 2021, the raids were conducted at the three different places in Srinagar. The offensive came in the backdrop of multiple scams rocking the valley.

At Srinagar’s Natipora area, a pack of plainclothes police first appear knocking at the door of a new relay station. It was followed by a storm-trooping by masked cops in camouflage and bullet-proof vests.

The sudden entry silenced the buzzing ambiance inside. The policemen warned everyone to stay at their occupied places but the fear of being arrested had coerced many office workers to try to hide inside other rooms; few others tried to dump the electronic gadgets.

The masked men took hold of everyone, even the catering assistants and janitor of the office. The busted people were immediately put inside the back of police vehicles, their devices rested with few cops who had seized them inside clean zipper storage bags.

The arrested people remained oblivious to all the troubles that were coming their way when their own devices would turn up evidence against them.

After everyone was intricately questioned about their involvement in the growing scam menace in Kashmir, the innocents were allowed to leave without being charged of any crime but around 23 people who had an “involvement in duping victims” were immediately arrested.

Among the 23 people arrested, the main operators of the group were still missing and when the police approached them, they had already succeeded in getting an interim bail from the High Court. The same legal approach was undertaken by the Legal team of the already arrested people from the raid. All of the accused were let out within just a week of their arrest.

The cyber police has now submitted the data carved out from the pen drives, hard disk and mobile phones that were confiscated from the accused.

“We’ve enough proof to assist our claim that the arrested people have a full hand involvement in scamming people,” Tahir Ashraf, the cyber police chief, told Kashmir Observer.

The online scam has apparently taken a quantum jump, with the Cyber Police Station receiving more than 300 complaints from various people since its establishment in November 2019.

The major complaints are about misuse of social media which includes creation of fake accounts that are later used for cyber bullying, duping people, child-pornography and online harassment. 

One of the victims of this cybercrime was Mehran, a young graduate student from Srinagar’s Bemina.

Mehran had returned to Kashmir in March 2020 when the sudden outbreak of the pandemic had forced him to travel back to his homeland from Punjab. After being confined to his house—in fear of contracting the virus—for about 12 months, he had decided to book a cheap ticket to Jammu, where his cousin was already waiting for him.

As hours passed without any luck, Mehran became hopeless.

As the young graduate was about to call his cousin to inform him about his failed bid, an unknown number rang his phone.

The person on the call introduced himself as a “sales agent” from the On-Travel look—an online platform to book cheap tickets. He had informed Mehran about the availability of a low-cost ticket from Srinagar to Jammu and had asked him to pay an online amount of Rs 3100 to book the last available ticket, which Mehran paid later in the evening.

“Since then, I’ve neither received my ticket nor a confirmation mail or a call from them,” he says. “I tried to call them numerous times, but all in vain.”

Before ordering raids on the relay-stations, Tahir Ashraf got a call from one of his “special sources” in a late afternoon of January 2021.

Appointed to locate the place of operation, from where victims were duped, the source was calling to inform his superior about the success.

He had tracked down the relay-stations—located in Rangreth, Natipora and Karfalli Mohalla in Habba Kadal—from where the scam callers were operating.

Tahir let himself believe, the mystery of these mobile numbers—an investigation that was quietly being worked upon—might finally come to an end. The investigation had consumed cyber cops for about a fortnight.

In the first week of January, cyber police had solved the case of an ailing Bandipora patient who was duped for about Rs 11 lakh by a cold call scammer, the so called Stock-Market Trader, who used to dupe victims in the name of hefty returns and crediting direct money into their account.

“With that case, Cyber Police Kashmir has saved around Rs 1 crore of gullible people which they have lost in various financial frauds,” Tahir said.

After getting the initial lead about the “scam centers” from his “special source”, Tahir assigned his secret police to dig more into the matter before committing an official investigation team.

On the same day of January, a young man working in a call centre stood oblivious about Tahir’s research and his zip-past action through a cluster of technical data, mobile numbers and the hunch of information.

The on-call man had asked his customer to give him online access to their desktop, so that he was able to solve the malware that had infected the customer’s computer. The scammer basically intended to invoke a malware into the customer’s computer, so that he would solve the dysfunctions caused in the system, created from the malware and charge an amount that the customer was coerced to pay.

But, the young customer’s active consciousness saved him from being another name in the victim list.

Once the pattern was established, the counterinsurgents were sent to hunt the erring techies.

“The only aim of these scammers is to fraudulently make money and dupe people without caring for the consequences of these illegal activities,” Tahir said.

“The doors to these scammers become open once the victim faces a minor lapse in managing the digital platform,” the officer added. “And that later on, becomes a pathway for these scammers to loot the victims of their hard earned money or damage one’s reputation.”

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Zaid Bin Shabir

Zaid Bin Shabir is a special correspondent at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @Zaidbinshabir

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