Cyber slaves, stock market experts, and a bunch of online gangs operating out of Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Lao PDR, have siphoned off over Rs 7,061 crore of Indian public money in the first four months of this year, and more than six lakh complaints connected to this have been received by the Indian Cybercrime Coordination Centre (I4C).

I4C, which is an initiative of the ministry of home affairs (MHA), has observed a significant rise in the number of cybercrime incidents targeting India originating from the Southeast Asian region.

This region is a hub of major investment and stock market scams, digital arrests, fake gaming apps, and romance scams.

The gravity of the frauds is so high and growing that I4C and state law enforcement agencies had to freeze debits from 3.25 lakh mule accounts in the last four months, while more than 3,000 URLs and 595 apps were blocked under Section 69A of the IT Act. Indian agencies have also suspended 5.3 lakh SIM cards and 80,848 IMEI numbers since July 2023, as per the data given by I4C.

According to the CEO of I4C, Rajesh Kumar, a 2002-batch IPS officer, Indian money is being transferred through various means, including cryptocurrency, cash withdrawals, physical gold, etc.

“Cybercrime operations based in these countries employ a comprehensive array of deceptive strategies, including recruitment efforts by exploiting social media to lure Indian youths with fake employment opportunities. These individuals are then compelled to engage in various cyber scams (such as investment scams, pig butchering scams, trading app scams, dating scams, etc), often communicating via messaging platforms using Indian SIM cards to target Indian nationals. The illicit gains from these activities are laundered through sophisticated financial channels, including Indian bank accounts, cryptocurrency transactions, and cash withdrawals across various countries, among others,” Kumar said.

The money exits India in various ways, he added. “It includes international fund transfers, physical gold, cryptocurrency, cash withdrawals from India and other countries, and hawala. They use the complex layering of bank accounts. In one case where the victim lost 70 lakh rupees, fraudsters used nine bank accounts and finally transferred money into cryptocurrency,” said Kumar. “Compounds in Cambodia were used where Indians went to in the country. They use multiple telegram channels to trap Indians. The maximum number of victims are trapped in investment scams.”

I4C is continuously monitoring and blocking cybercrime infrastructure such as Skype accounts, Google advertisements, Meta advertisements, SMS headers, SIM cards, bank accounts, etc, the MHA said.

The ministry also said that thousands of Indians willingly or unwillingly working in these call centres are involved in fraud.

In light of the aforementioned concerns, a high-level inter-ministerial committee under the chairpersonship of the special secretary (internal security), ministry of home affairs, has been constituted to coordinate with relevant ministries and departments for implementing comprehensive measures aimed at mitigating cybercrime originating from Southeast Asia targeting India and creating a resilient ecosystem to prevent such crimes from originating from other geographies.

The ministry of home affairs said that on May 20, 2024, a protest occurred in a suspected scam compound in Sihanouk City, Cambodia, involving Indian nationals employed there. The Embassy of India in Phnom Penh has taken the necessary measures to ensure the safety and well-being of the Indian citizens involved in this incident, it added.

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