“My grandfather died waiting for an oxygen cylinder. This is murder,” said Nikita. She was inconsolable.
At 5 pm on April 29, when Nikita noticed her Covid-hit grandfather’s oxygen was rapidly dropping, she began frantically searching for an oxygen cylinder. “That’s when a friend sent me Sachin Agarwal’s number,” she recalled.
She called and asked where to pick up the cylinder from. Sachin said, “I understand this would be difficult for you. You take care of your situation at home, I’ll make sure to deliver it.”
Sachin asked Nikita for her address and Rs 8,500 to deliver a cylinder. Nikita sent the money via Google Pay. An hour later, having still not received the cylinder, she called Sachin back. He comforted her and said the cylinder was being packed. A few minutes later, he called Nikita and told her she would have to buy two more cylinders for him to be able to deliver.
“My grandfather’s condition was worsening, so in desperation I sent him another Rs 17,000 and pleaded that he quickly deliver the cylinders,” said Nikita. She also asked him for a photograph of the three cylinders being loaded onto a truck. Sachin did not. And by 7.15 pm, he stopped responding to Nikita’s calls.
“At 9.30 pm, nanaji passed away. We were broken. If we could have found a cylinder we could have saved nana’s life. We lost four and a half hours waiting for this man’s cylinder,” Nikita said.
The next morning she managed to get Sachin on the phone and told him what had happened. He offered to deliver the cylinder. “I got so angry and asked him what the point was. I told him to just repay our money,” she said, “I started suspecting he was a fraud and I told him I would complain to the police. He had no reaction to that.”
Nikita did not want to be identified. “I’m scared,” she explained. “He has my home address. What if he does something?”
Nikita isn’t the only desperate person Sachin Agarwal – if that’s his real name – has defrauded. We found that between April 29 and May 5, he defrauded close to 30 people in Delhi looking for oxygen cylinders for Covid patients. Twenty four of them have disclosed on social media how much they lost to the fraud – Rs 4,65,500 in total. I’m one of them.
I was for an oxygen cylinder for my uncle’s friend on May 1, and at around 5.30 pm I got Sachin’s contact from a friend. We paid him Rs 25,400 after he insisted that we buy two cylinders. After an hour waiting for delivery we called to ask why he had not delivered the cycliners yet, only to be told to pay Rs 6,000 more as Goods and Services Tax. I got suspicious. I pleaded that he send the cylinders as we had already paid him Rs 25,400, and promised to pay Rs 6,000 on delivery.
To this, he replied, “I don’t have cylinders anymore. I will return the money tomorrow.” He cut the call and turned off his phone.
Thankfully, we managed to find a cylinder for the patient from another place.
The next day, having waited over 12 hours for the refund, I told Sachin I would file a police complaint. “Go ahead and file it. Let’s see,” he replied.
At 1 pm on May 2, I our ordeal. I was soon getting messages from people claiming the same Sachin Agarwal had scammed them as well. , for one, had been defrauded of Rs 33,950.
Sharadh’s brother-in-law was admitted in Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital, Delhi, with Covid. On April 30, his doctor said he could go isolate at home provided he had an oxygen cylinder. At that point, his oxygen saturation was 90-93.
“My brother-in-law had lost his father to Covid two days before, which is why we wanted him to come home and isolate. He was not in a good mental state,” said Sharadh. “None of us were.”
As Sharadh and his family began searching for oxygen cylinder vendors, a friend passed them Sachin Agarwal’s contact. At 11 am, Sharadh called Sachin and asked for two cylinders. Sachin asked him to transfer Rs 20,000 via Paytm. “He sounded very calm and respectful,” Sharadh recalled. “When we asked if we could pick up the cylinder, he said we wouldn’t be able to reach his shop because of the lockdown and that he would deliver it himself.”
In the next hour Sachin demanded another Rs 13,950. “We were so desperate and we are all down with Covid, so it was all very stressful. Everyone was crying on the phone,” Sharadh said. “So, even though we were getting suspicious, we ended up sending the money.”
Sachin had sent what he claimed were copies of his PAN, voter and Aadhaar cards to prove his bona fides to Sharadh. But by 2 pm he had switched off his phone.
Sharadh waited for over three hours for the cylinders which never came. “Unfortunately, in the midst of this tension, we didn’t realise that the patient's oxygen saturation had dropped,” he said. The patient is back in hospital, battling pneumonia and typhoid.
Esther is another of Sachin’s victims. She was scammed for Rs 25,400.
On April 29, Esther’s father-in-law, 70, a cancer patient on chemotherapy, was found Covid positive when his oxygen saturation dropped to 80. The family started looking for oxygen cylinders and came across Sachin who promised to deliver. The patient's condition deteriorated when the oxygen didn’t come, and he was admitted in hospital. “He has developed pneumonia. I really thought we were going to lose him that day,” said Esther.
Who is Sachin Agarwal?
Sachin told most of his victims he worked at Durga Oxygen Gas Depot in Shahdara. When my friend visited the shop it was shut. Two other families were standing outside in the hope of finding Sachin to ask for their money back.
In every case examined by Newslaundry, Sachin gave his victim one phone number to call and multiple other numbers for UPI payments.
Monika Bharadwaj, deputy commissioner of police, Crime Branch, told Newslaundry they were trying to establish if Sachin was one person using multiple numbers or several people using one name. “The locations of all the numbers we have traced are outside of Delhi. Eight numbers have been located in Bihar, and a few more in Jharkhand, Mumbai, Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.”
She said the Delhi police have received over 50 complaints of oxygen cylinders fraud and “Sachin’s name has come up quite often”. She added that as soon as an FIR is registered on such a complaint, the police try to block the number and bank account of the scamster.
Hard to file a complaint
To most tweets complaining of scams in Delhi, the police have promptly responded with this:
“It’s important that anyone who gets scammed files an FIR,” said Baradwaj.
But it is not easy to file an FIR.
A day after being scammed on May 1, Sharadh’s family went to the Kirthi Nagar police station. “They asked us to go to a police station near our house. The officer told us that even if he wrote down our complaint he wouldn’t register an FIR,” said Sharadh. “In fact, he went on to make fun of us and said, ‘Why didn’t you ask Sachin as many questions as you are asking me? Maybe you wouldn’t have lost your money then’.”
Refusal to file an FIR under the Criminal Procedure Code.
Eventually, Sharadh managed to file a complaint with the Cyber Cell. “We gave up on filing an FIR because right now we have to focus on the patient’s deteriorating health,” he said.
On May 1, my friend and I registered a complaint at the police station in Shahdara. That day and the next when I tried calling the Cyber Cell, nobody picked up.
Since my uncle lives in Gurugram, Haryana, I also contacted two police stations there – DLF Phase 2 and in Sector 29 – to try and file an FIR. Both refused to file an FIR. It was a cyber crime, they said, and I must call the Cyber Cell. On May 2, I filed an online complaint with both the cyber cells in both Delhi and Haryana.
On May 2, after over 24 hours, the Shahdara police station finally registered my FIR.
Esther and her family chose not to file an FIR. “We needed to focus on finding a bed for the patient, so we didn’t pursue it,” she explained.
Harshit Mahalwal, a lawyer in Delhi, and a few of his colleagues are now dedicatedly examining cases where Sachin Agarwal has scammed people. “I am now personally looking into five cases. In one case he even threatened to go and kill the person if they did not transfer the money immediately,” Harshit said.
He noted that it was crucial to file an FIR immediately. “But that isn’t easy. Helplines have been set up but nobody wants to take responsibility. All our victims said that whenever they called the police, the police would give them different numbers to call,” he said, adding, “When you are busy trying to save a life and you get scammed and, on top of that, you cannot even file an FIR quickly it’s exhausting and demoralising.”
‘It began because of police’
As coronavirus infections rose in Delhi last month and oxygen began to run out, many people started volunteering online to help coordinate oxygen cylinders for families in need.
Iknoor Kaur, a communications professional in Delhi, started volunteering on April 25. “I call, say, 100 vendors and only 2-3 have oxygen. Once I verify the vendor has oxygen I send the contact to the family,” she said.
Initially, Iknoor said, vendors would give their address and ask the buyers to visit the establishment, make the payment, and take the cylinders. On April 27, the Delhi High Court the state government to find establishments selling oxygen or drugs on the black market. “The police then began heavily cracking down on shops selling oxygen cylinders,” she recalled. “Apart from this, two vendors told me that their shops were looted by desperate relatives of Covid patients. So, vendors grew scared of giving out their addresses.”
Instead, they started delivering cylinders home. “Vendors now ask buyers to make advance payments. This has made it easier for fraudsters to thrive,” Iknoor explained.
UPDATE: On May 7, after this story was published, one Rajat Gupta that his uncle had been similarly defrauded by a man who called himself Mishra. And like “Sachin Agarwal”, Mishra too worked at Durga Gas Agency.
When Iknoor called on the number provided by Gupta, Mishra picked up and said he had oxygen cylinders to sell. He asked for an advance, and promised to deliver the cylinders. When Iknoor prodded him about his location and asked for his GST number and ID proof, he sent a copy of an Aadhaar card but refused to give his GST number or location. When she continued to prod, he got angry and said, “I hope your family dies without oxygen”.
Next, I called him. Again, he demanded an advance payment. When I asked to pick up the cylinders from his establishment, Mishra replied, “No, you won’t get a cylinder, you can keep the phone.” When I asked directly if he was defrauding desperate people looking for help, Mishra got angry, started swearing, and called me a “prostitute”.
A few hours later, he called me with rape threats.
Some names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
Urvi Durga and Keshav Pransukhka contributed reporting.