Covid-19: India’s scammers benefit from fake medicines, recycled PPEs during pandemic


India’s covid-19 outbreak has proved profitable for its ever-inventive army of scammers, from fake medications to fire extinguishers disguised as oxygen cylinders and recycled personal protective equipment (PPE), with lethal repercussions.

Chandrakant Taneja, Komal Taneja’s husband, died gasping for air at their New Delhi home last month when the oxygen canister they ordered over the internet for $200 never came.

“We desperately tried to find a hospital bed for a week … Two private hospitals asked us for a million rupees ($13,800) in advance,” Komal, her voice cracking on the phone, told AFP news agency.

“Then we came across a contact online promising an oxygen cylinder delivery within an hour of making the 15,000 rupees ($205) payment. When we did, they asked for more money, and then stopped responding,” Komal added.

Chandrakant, a stock market trader, died on May 1, leaving his homemaker wife hunting for employment to assist care for his ill parents.

India has a lengthy history of devious schemes that have defrauded regular people, both inside and without its boundaries.

In one recent example, authorities raided a contact centre in December that reportedly scammed 4,500 Americans out of $14 million.

They pretended to be US authorities and informed victims that drug cartels were using their bank accounts and that the only way to get their money back was to transfer their assets to Bitcoin, which the gang would then cash in.

Hundreds of villagers in Haryana were proclaimed dead in traffic accidents to claim insurance in one sophisticated fraud involving police and physicians that surfaced in 2019.

As India suffers from a deadly covid-19 outbreak, investigators believe many fraudsters have switched their focus to ripping off desperate COVID-19 patients and family.

When Narang, a private firm executive in Noida, was frantically seeking an oxygen concentrator for an ill buddy, he was swindled by a cunning fraud, he claimed.

“I came across a link for a supplier which looked genuine and even had a catalogue with different models. The prices, too, were competitive,” Narang told AFP.

“I spoke with a person on the phone. He asked for about 45,000 rupees ($616) in two instalments. I was sure it was genuine and even recommended this supplier to another acquaintance.

Narang’s case is one of more than 600 police probes opened in recent weeks in New Delhi, with people desperate for oxygen, hospital beds, and medication.

“These criminals saw it as an opportune moment to make an entry,” senior Delhi police officer Shibesh Singh told AFP.

His Crime Branch has already caught a slew of con artists, including a group that manufactured and marketed counterfeit Remdesivir antiviral medicines for up to 40 times the market price.

“These criminals saw it as an opportune moment to make an entry,” senior Delhi police officer Shibesh Singh told AFP.

Another group repainted fire extinguishers and presented them as oxygen cylinders, while another pretended to be physicians and advertised non-existent hospital beds.

Six men were detained last week on suspicion of cleaning, repackaging, and selling a large quantity of old medical gloves obtained from hospitals.

“We can only urge the people to be extra cautious while approaching such contacts for online help,” Singh said.

Some of the victims are calling for harsh penalties.

“Hang them all,” Narang said.

“If not that, then the government should ensure life imprisonment. This isn’t just mental or financial, they are playing with human life.”

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