As for Covid beds, oxygen and medicines continue to fill social media timelines, there have been increasing reports of rampant black marketing, theft and hoarding of essential medical supplies.
Delhi reported than Mumbai has since the beginning of March. Simultaneously, fraudsters have found their way to social media, infiltrating lists of genuine resources being circulated in response to distress calls. Many have even swindled money from those in need.
One of them was Mahek Kapur.
On the evening of April 27, Mahek was helping a friend procure Remdesivir to treat a Covid-positive family member who had been hospitalised. Mahek had spent the last few days sourcing verified leads for essential drugs, beds and oxygen cylinders. Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, figured often in the SOS calls that she sorted through.
The drug was approved by the Drug Controller General for emergency use in the treatment of Covid last June. Though studies have of its efficacy, it’s been in for the last few weeks. Remdesivir is now priced by the seven manufacturers of the drug in the country. On the black market, however, it retails for much, much more.
On Instagram, Mahek found the contact number of a distributor from Cipla, one of the manufacturers of the drug. The number was being circulated as a verified lead. When she called the number, the man on the other end confirmed that he could supply it and quoted Rs 40,800 for six vials. Payment needed to be made in advance, he said, and he would deliver it to the hospital.
“He told my wife that he’s a distributor of Cipla,” said Mahek’s husband Rishabh Kapur, a Delhi-based advocate. “He said he’d been helping people for days and wasn’t getting the time to eat and whatnot.”
The man seemed genuine, Rishabh said, adding, “His WhatsApp display picture was the Cipla Foundation logo.”
Given the urgency of the situation, Mahek made a payment of Rs 40,800 into the Bank of India account the man gave her in the name of “Cipla Foundation Ltd”.
Soon after, the man’s mobile phone was continuously busy and Rishabh noticed all the red flags that had been missed before, mainly: why would an authorised Cipla dealer charge more than the market price? Cipla retails Remdesivir at Rs 3,000 a vial; Mahek had paid over double that.
Rishabh ran “Cipla Foundation Ltd” through the ministry of corporate affairs website. “I found that no such company exists,” he said. His fears were confirmed when the actual Cipla Foundation tweeted that it was “not engaged in any form of dealing in sale of Covid-19 related medicines” and warned the public of “unscrupulous persons”.
The Kapurs did manage to talk to the “Cipla” distributor on the phone again and asked for official ID. In return, the man sent them a picture of an obviously photoshopped ID card with the name “Rahul Yadav” who worked at “Cipla”. Rishabh ran the picture through a Google search and pulled up the same fake ID card made out to eight other companies.
The 'Cipla' ID card.
Unsurprisingly, the man did not deliver a single vial of Remdesivir. He also told the Kapurs on the phone that he did not fear retaliatory action. Rishabh filed a digital complaint with the national cybercrime portal but told Newslaundry, “He’s doing this with impunity...I also called the police control room who assigned an inspector from my local police station to look into this.”
Rishabh said he also spoke to Bank of India’s vigilance officer and was told that the account had been frozen.
But this story has become all too common. Newslaundry spoke to nearly half a dozen people who encountered similar instances of fraudsters posing as Cipla dealers, operating with different names, phone numbers and account numbers. The accounts can be traced to bank branches in multiple states but they all invariably were in the name of “Cipla Foundation Ltd”.
Abhinav Jain, 27, a consultant in south Delhi, called a purported Cipla dealer on April 26. He got the number on a WhatsApp group while struggling to find six vials of Remdesivir for his uncle, who had been admitted to a Covid hospital in Noida. In his case, a man who called himself Pankaj Singh offered to deliver the doses at Rs 3,400 apiece to the hospital. He asked for an advance payment of Rs 5,000 to a Union Bank account with the balance to be paid on delivery.
“After depositing the money in the bank account, we checked with him after 20 minutes and he confirmed the receipt,” Abhinav said, “but told us that Cipla would need a minimum 50 percent payment to dispatch the medicines.”
Suspicious, Abhinav asked for address proof and “Pankaj” sent him photos of an Aadhaar card and a PAN card. Abhinav thought they seemed genuine and made a second payment of Rs 5,200. The man cited a “technical glitch” in checking if the payment had been received and then stopped responding to messages.
He then asked Abhinav to make a full payment, saying the package was lying in front of him as they spoke. “We needed the injection,” Abhinav said. “Everyone felt helpless...we had already told the doctors we’re getting it.”
So, he transferred Rs 10,200. He never received the vials. When Abhinav called him several times, Pankaj would pick up and “laugh”, saying “do whatever you want”. Abhinav filed a digital complaint, just like the Kapurs did. He also received a response from the actual Cipla Foundation on Facebook, telling him that they had encountered many similar instances of fraud and had lodged formal complaints and alerted banks.
In Bengaluru, Harshvardhan Yadav, 36, said an “authorised Cipla distributor” offered him six vials of Remdesivir for Rs 20,400 to treat a friend’s father in Gurugram. His “distributor” was also called Pankaj Singh, but had a different bank account number.
The bank accounts used by the fraudsters.
Harshvardhan paid 50 percent of the amount on April 27 and Pankaj said he would dispatch the package in the morning, as his delivery people had left for the day. He made excuses when Harshvardhan called him repeatedly the next morning and then demanded full payment if the medicines were to be delivered. When threatened with the prospect of legal action, Harshvardhan said, Pankaj kept saying he was an authentic dealer. He eventually stopped answering calls.
Like the others, an e-complaint was then filed with the cybercrime portal.
“It’s not about the money,” Harshvardhan said. “He kept us waiting the entire night while we thought our friend would get the medicines in the morning. Had he just told me right after receiving the money that he’s a scamster, I would have at least started looking elsewhere.”
Delhi-based advocate Sanjana Srikumar, 27, faced a similar ordeal when trying to procure Tocilizumab for a friend’s relative. Tocilizumab is a “last resort” drug administered to critically ill Covid patients.
“It’s really disheartening that individual citizens have decided to monetise this crisis and use it to create further panic,” she told Newslaundry. She’s also emailed a complaint to the Delhi police’s cyber cell and is yet to receive an acknowledgement.