“Mein cyber hoon (I am a cyber),” says Mandal, who looks a teenager but insists he’s 21 years old.
In these parts – Karmatand and elsewhere in the villages of Jamtara, Madhupur, and Dumka of eastern Jharkhand – the frequently-used “cyber” in Hindi and Bengali refers to cybercrime and those dabbling in cybercrime, both petty and serious. There are thousands of “cybers” in this area, about 250 km northeast of Kolkata.
“Wo log wahan cyber karte hein (Those guys do their cybercrimes there),” Shadab, a local tea shop owner, tells me pointing to the fields at a distance where I meet Mandal and his friends one recent April afternoon.
Mandal and friends are among the millions-strong generation of boys and young men in their teens and early 20s in Jharkhand, a state that is rich in mineral wealth (it accounts for some 40% of the country’s natural resources) but counts 39 of its 100 people living in poverty.
Amidst the malnutrition and poverty, smartphones make the world a less unequal place for the Jamtara’s youth involved in cybercrime. With more than half of India’s cyber crimes, mostly committed by fraudsters posing as bank managers and traced back to Jharkhand, this belt is clearly digital India’s underbelly. This estimate comes from police officials in Jharkhand and Karnataka.
To be sure, Jharkhand ranks 13th in terms of cyber crime rates in 2016, the latest year for which data is available the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), and 14th in terms of incidents and the percentage share of overall reported cyber crimes for the same year. But, that’s primarily because most of the victims targeted by the cyber fraudsters from Jharkhand are elsewhere in the country and the crimes get reported in other states.
An insidious web of mobile phone SIM cards, digital wallets, and bank accounts opened on the back of fake KYC documents power hundreds of small gangs in the state — and point to trends in the future of crime in the country. “Although the total number of cyber crimes are less than 0.1% of the total IPC and SLL crimes in a year (in India), in 30-35% of all crimes, criminals are using mobile phones for communication,” says Ish Kumar, director of the NCRB. “There is an overwhelming need to train all investigating officers in cyber and digital forensics, and open cyber police stations in all district headquarters.” IPC is short for Indian Penal Code and SLL for special and local laws enacted by a state.
A cyber crime police station set up in Jamtara early last year is at the forefront of the battle with cyber criminals and Jharkhand’s efforts to shed its image of being home to India’s cybercrime capital. Early results look encouraging with the local police claiming crimes are down by half but can they curb the menace completely? FactorDaily interviewed nearly two dozen local residents in Jamtara and surrounding areas, local police officials, cyber crime police specialists in Bengaluru, NCRB officials and others to get an inside view of the crusade against cyber crime in Jharkhand.
Over the past decade, especially since the mobile boom, Jamtara’s unemployed youth found working the phones was an easy way to make a quick buck. “If you ask around the elders, you will learn that these areas have always been notorious for thugs. Now, the next generation has evolved,” says Sumit Kumar, deputy superintendent of police (DSP) who has been with the Jamtara cybercrime police station since September last year. The station was set up in January 2017 after the state government realised it needed a dedicated force to deal with cybercrime in these parts. Kumar adds that earlier the thievery included drugging train passengers and looting them. The local gangs would even steal coal and other valuable minerals – a story told in the 2012 film Gangs of Wasseypur – with Dhanbad, India’s coal capital, just about 50 km away. Dhanbad falls on the Howrah-Delhi rail route.
How does it work?
“Aur ye hai hamara cyber cafe (And, this is our cyber cafe),” says Mandal, pointing to his phone whose make is not clear. He tells me that until a few years ago gangs such as his used to operate from one of the dozens of cyber cafes in and around Jamtara. The cops have made that difficult with cyber cafe owners being co-opted into police informer networks. Mandal asks me not to use his first name in this story.
Every morning, Mandal and a bunch of his friends from Karmatand village gather in the barren fields close to the dry jungles bordering the village. One of them brings updates from an underground network of phone number database sellers, new phone connection resellers and general buzz about who could be on the radar of Jamtara’s cyber police.
“No pictures, please,” Mandal tells me sternly. One of his older friends in his mid-to-late 30s says they normally chase away people with cameras trying to enter the village.
“We even pelt stones on police teams who come into our villages sniffing around,” the friend says boastfully, picking up a small stone as he talks. I don’t ask him his name.
After Mandal and his friends shortlist the phone numbers of people from different parts of India to call posing as bank managers, the action begins.
The most common tactic is impersonation. Mandal and his like make calls posing as bank managers, getting their victims to share bank account and card details, and then use the information to move the money to their accounts. Typically, targets are told that their ATM card has been blocked and that if it’s not renewed soon, it will remain inactive. India has over 1.5 billion savings and current banking accounts and some 29 million credit cards and 820 million debit cards — and the chances of someone believing the call to be a genuine one are high.
The 16-digit card number and its details are next asked for. While on the call, one of them is feeding this information in an e-wallet, including the CVV number, and expiry date of the card. Then, they tell the victim to share an OTP message they would be receiving from the bank, which is essential for the criminals to transfer money from the victim’s account to an e-wallet such as Paytm or Oxigen. This e-wallet is already linked with a bank account opened only for this purpose.
“It’s mostly a fake bank account opened with fraud KYC documents,” adds Kumar, the DSP of Jamtara’s cyber crime police station.
Soon, the money is withdrawn and distributed among everyone involved in the heist. Not all involved in the crime have e-wallets; the ones that do become the centrepiece of this entire chain.
Mandal tells me it’s increasingly becoming difficult to transact through e-wallets, especially the more established ones such as Paytm because accounts require KYC documentation. But Jharkhand’s digital-savvy criminals won’t give up so easy. They have discovered a bunch of e-wallets including Tapzo, TMW, Kitecase and so on.
“We will always find a new e-wallet to operate from,” Mandal says confidently.
As he shows off on an associate’s phone, I realise he could be a young man anywhere in India. Amidst the apps crowding the phone screen are some popular consumers apps including the entertainment streaming app Hotstar. “We love cricket and Bollywood, like everyone else in the country,” he says.
But DSP Kumar and his team have been tightening the noose around the networks of SIM card sellers, e-wallet companies and bank accounts involved in this chain and have aggressively moved on the local cybercrime networks. “We act on the leads and information mostly suo moto. Based on local inputs, we conduct regular raids. This year we have done so far 60 arrests. Just yesterday we caught a dozen of them,” says Kumar.
Inside Jamtara’s crusade against cybercrime
From outside, the yellow building looks more like a marriage hall. Jamtara’s cybercrime police station set up in September last year makes a loud statement with its brightly coloured walls amid the grey blocks of the town’s local court premises. The compound is teeming with lawyers, clients, and even some handcuffed undertrials.
DSP Kumar says he wants the cyber crime rates in his area to stand out too – by dropping really low. He has some high-visibility arrests to his credit: some kingpins, who often become role models for aspiring cyber criminals in the region, have been nabbed and sentenced, too.
In January this year, for instance, Kumar, together with sub-inspectors Rohit Kumar and Prabhat Kumar and their team, nabbed around half a dozen cyber criminals after raiding them in the villages of Karmatand and Narayanapura. One of them, Yugal Mandal, was a top mastermind in the area. He had built a house that was estimated to cost nearly Rs 2 crore close to Jamtara’s Edward School, among the most sought-after English medium schools in the locality.
Locals talk about the arrest of Vicky Mandal from Taratand and his partner Shankar Mandal. Vicky’s mansion is estimated to have cost at least Rs 50 lakh – a big amount for a house in the area. “We have had good success in catching some of these kingpins regularly, sending a message to others,” says Kumar, the DSP.
Jamtara’s cyber criminals and their flashy lifestyles are topics that start discussions of fervour at local tea shops. Subhash Kumar, a small time iron trader in Jamtara, tells me how he once saw a convoy of top-end cars pass by. “I first thought some ministers are visiting remote villages but I soon realised they were mostly teenagers playing loud Bollywood music,” he recalls.
Until a couple of years ago, Jamtara’s cyber crime masterminds operated without much hassle because police teams from Ranchi and Dhanbad took time to reach remote areas of their operations – and, if they did, the operatives were alerted. Secondly, Jamtara’s residents, too, used to turn a blind eye. Local merchants like wine shop owners and meat sellers did brisk business as Jamtara’s cyber criminals spent freely on the good life.
Now, they can only look back at the glory days and complain of dwindling businesses. “Earlier, until last year, I used to sell around 100 two-wheelers, mostly the priciest models, every month. Now, it’s only about a dozen or two at best,” says the owner of a local dealership for bikes. He requested anonymity because he wanted to avoid visits from local cops.
Jaya Roy, Jamtara’s superintendent of police, says these micro-economic indicators are a good metric to measure how cyber crime is being controlled.
DSP Kumar pulls up a WhatsApp message on his phone from one of his informers: “Last night I saw a gang bet nearly 17 lakh in a game of cards. I think they’re involved in cyber,” it reads. “Now we will first send a cop in civil clothes later today first and then observe the gang before making any move,” the policeman says.
The day before I arrived in Jamtara, Kumar and his team had raided and busted a local cyber crime gang in Sonbad village, some 74 kilometres from Jamtara.
The Jamtara police have been busy of late. In 2017, Jamtara’s cyber crime cops arrested 185 criminals and registered 89 cases against them. During raids, they also collected 700 mobile phones, 900 SIM cards, 160 ATM cards, 10 four-wheelers, and 90 two-wheelers. And, Rs 17 lakh in cash was seized.
This year so far, DSP Kumar and his team have already arrested 51 cyber criminals, registered 23 cases, confiscated 105 mobile phones, 135 SIM cards, 13 ATM cards, a car and 14 two-wheelers. The cash seized so far this year is around Rs 1.25 lakh.
In Madhupur, another cyber crime hub some 60 kilometres away from Jamtara, police officer Ashok Kumar Singh is also busy waging a battle on cyber criminals. Just four days before we meet, Singh and team tracked down a gang in nearby Margo village. “Our biggest challenge is the SIM card fraud and tracking digital wallets,” he says.
While Karmatand and Jamtara have been hogging most of the limelight when it comes to cyber crime in Jharkhand, Madhupur has had its own kingpins. One of them, an alleged murderer who’s on the run, is Sanjay Yadav. “We recovered Rs 15 lakh in cash from his house last year along with a pricey television, music system and fridge,” says Singh.
Another way to measure the Jamtara police’s progress is the number of visits from police from other states to the area. According to DSP Kumar, the number of visits has come down from around three different state teams coming every week to about once in a couple of months.
The curse of “cyber”
Make no mistake, the heat is on if you are a “cyber” in Jharkhand but Jamtara’s descent into cybercrime is almost as if it was foretold with the area bereft of opportunities to earn a living. “Tand means infertile land where you cannot grow anything,” DSP Kumar tells me of the word that the names of most of the remote tribal villages near Jamtara end in. Not surprisingly, villages such as Jhariatand, Karmatand, and Taratand, for instance, are cyber crime hubs in the state.
It is worse for those who come out of the crime. Sudarshan Mandal, who was part of a cyber crime gang until February last year, tells me these villages and those like Narayanapura offer no opportunities. “And with a background in cyber crime, you become even more untouchable when you return to leading a normal life,” Sudarshan tells me sipping tea at one of the shops at the entrance of Karmatand village. “Your old mates look at you as a traitor and the cops pick you up almost every day for questioning and potential leads on their next raids.”
Roy, Jamtara’s superintendent of police, flags a concern of recent months: with the tightening of the noose around cyber crime, old world crimes such as pickpocketing have seen a spike. “Unemployment is creating troubles for us… there are more people sitting idle,” she says.
There are surprises, to be sure. I had never expected to meet youth fighting the area’s image of a cybercrime hotspot by donning the role of ethical hackers. Meet Aman Kumar Sah and cousin Aditya Kumar Sah from Karmatand, who want their village to be remembered more as being home for nearly two decades to 18th-century social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
Aman, a second-year student of the bachelors of computer application course at Dhanbad’s Guru Nanak College, is an ethical hacker who helped two colleges and a university in Jharkhand secure their websites by hacking the systems after their permission. “This village was the battleground for India’s social reforms led by Vidya Sagar, it should be known primarily for that,” says his cousin Aditya. The two have produced a YouTube video highlighting the achievers from Karmatand.
Meanwhile, Mandal from the village, is not showing any signs of slowing down on hunting down the next cyber victim. “People like you will come and go, write about Jamtara, and make us world famous. But what’s wrong in having a good life,” he asks, wrapping up our conversation and signalling that our meeting is over. The smug look on his face says the cyber battle of Jamtara still has time before it ends.
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Pictures: Pankaj Mishra
Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.