The lost and found scam: Police tool used to defraud those looking for missing relatives | Latest News Delhi - Hindustan Times
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The lost and found scam: Police tool used to defraud those looking for missing relatives

Jan 28, 2024 05:30 AM IST

Shyam Sundar Chauhan allegedly called 904 families which were looking for their missing family members

New Delhi After a tense, sleepless night, 52-year-old Markandey – a former security guard – received a phone call at 9am last November that soothed his broken heart. The caller told him that his 21-year-old daughter, who had been missing from their home in Sant Nagar in south Delhi for over 24 hours, was being tracked by the “Missing Persons’ Cell” of the Delhi Police that the caller was a part of.

The accsed duped at least 50 to the tune of <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>10 lakh. (Representational image)
The accsed duped at least 50 to the tune of 10 lakh. (Representational image)

He sympathised with Markandey, asked for his daughter’s photo and name, and resuscitated a father’s dying hope.

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What followed were two calls in a span of a few hours: “We are still looking for her, hold tight,” followed by “your daughter has exited Chandigarh in a car, we are following her – but we need money for petrol, you know how the Delhi Police is, send 8,000.”

Desperate as any parent would be to reunite with their missing child, Markandey pushed his doubts aside, and sent the caller 8,000 via a UPI transaction.

He nervously waited for a call, an update, his daughter’s voice from the other end of the phone. “We are still following her,” the man who had taken Markandey’s 8,000 told him twice.

By evening, Markandey’s calls went unanswered, and with that his hopes were crushed.

In another corner of Delhi, the same month, and under similar circumstances, a missing minor girl’s parents paid 10,000 to the caller; and the father of a 30-year-old man sent 40,000 to the caller who said the police team was headed to Manali in Himachal Pradesh to bring him back.

The caller was not a police officer. The caller was never in Chandigarh, chasing Markandey’s missing daughter’s car; and was he never in Manali looking for anyone’s son.

The caller, Shyam Sundar Chauhan (38), was in a dingy, unkempt rented room in Mohammadabad in Mau, Uttar Pradesh, with a mobile phone, a few SIM cards, a stable internet connection and an exhaustive list of phone numbers of those looking for their missing family members – available to one and all on the zonal integrated police network (ZIPNet).

Since August 2023, Shyam had allegedly called 904 families, of which he had duped at least 50, to the tune of 10 lakh, by posing as a cop, who was a part of the missing persons’ cell of the Delhi police.

“This man preyed on our weakness. I can’t explain in words how upset my wife and I were. We were so desperate to find her. But look what happened – our daughter was still missing, and our hard-earned money was also gone,” Markandey told HT.

Markandey’s matter reached sub-inspector (SI) Vinod Walia – who heads the missing persons’ squad of north district – just as he had settled into his 12x14 feet, cramped office in the north police district headquarters in Civil Lines, on November 16.

The grieving father was at the police station to enquire about the calls, the caller, the Chandigarh chase, the petrol money – and his missing daughter.

Before Walia could find out how many families had been duped this mercilessly, he was summoned by deputy commissioner of police (DCP), north, Manoj Kumar Meena, on November 18. “He asked me if anyone from my team had taken 10,000 through UPI from the family of a missing minor girl in the name of tracing her to Dehradun and bringing her back to Delhi in a private vehicle,” Walia recounted to HT.

Baffled by the allegation, Walia vehemently denied it, and informed the DCP about how Markandey was defrauded in a similar way.

And then, just hours after meeting the DCP, a third family reached out to Walia. A man, posing as a policeman, was seeking 10,000 for bringing back their missing family member from another state to Delhi.

“I told them to send me the caller’s number. I made the call and asked this man which Delhi police team he belonged to. He refused to answer, then he abused me and cut the call... I had to nab him,” said Walia.

Two weeks later, the accused was identified, and then on December 6, he was arrested outside his favourite meat shop in Mohammadabad – 855km away from Delhi.

The fraud

By early December, a crucial change was made to ZIPNet, and the numbers of the family members of missing people was removed by the Delhi Police, the nodal agency. They were replaced with the names of the police stations concerned, names of the station house officers (SHOs) or the investigating officers (IOs), and in some cases, the phone numbers of the IOs.

At first, Walia suspected that it was an organised cheating syndicate. As soon as police got hold of the phone number used to make the fraud calls, it was put on surveillance, and the UPI ID where payments were made was also being tracked to see which bank account it was attached to.

“Through technical surveillance, we found out that the calls were made from areas between Mohammadabad and Ranipur in UP’s Mau district,” Walia said.

Analysis of call detail records of the mobile number, obtained from the service provider, showed the number of the person the accused spoke to most often – 35-year-old Mohammad Ali, who ran a meat shop in Ranipur.

Mutton, as bait

At first, police suspected that Ali was an accomplice of the accused. “We traced Ali’s shop and his residential address through his cellphone’s location. We asked him who the phone number belonged to, and he told us that it was one daadhi bhaiya’s (bearded man), his regular customer, who lives nearby,” said Delhi police head constable Aas Mohammad, who led the raiding team.

Police also showed Ali the WhatsApp display picture connected to the accused’s phone number – of two men, including one in a police uniform.

“We had assumed that one of them was the person we were looking for. Ali told us it’s neither of them. That’s when we realised that our suspect was a lone wolf and that there was no organised syndicate of cheats,” said HC Aas.

By December 1, police had the name of the accused – Shyam Sundar Chauhan. On December 4, a three-member Delhi Police team reached Ranipur and checked into a budget hotel near Ali’s meat shop, in case the accused showed up there. “The team looked for him all day in the market but didn’t find him. They warned Ali not to alert him or else he would be booked for conspiracy,” said Walia.

Only Ali knew that a foolproof way to lure Chauhan was by using “best quality mutton” as bait. And so, on December 6 morning, Ali called Chauhan and told him that he had kept aside the best quality meat for him. “A meat lover, Chauhan couldn’t resist the temptation, and reached Ali’s shop on a cycle rickshaw around 9.30am. We told him we are the original missing persons’ squad, and nabbed him,” said HC Aas.

The conman

Born and raised in Indore, Chauhan completed his Bachelor of Computer Application in 2017, and worked at a private company in the city for six months.

“A few years ago, his mother was detected with cancer, and the family sent him to Delhi for work and then to his sister’s house in Ranipur early last year. It was here that he began looking for ways to scam people, and soon rented a room in Mohammadabad for the same,” a Delhi Police investigator said, citing Chauhan’s disclosures to HT.

When Chauhan’s phone call records were analysed, it was found that he called 904 families in Delhi to extort money from them.

“He would pose as a cop and tell them that he is looking for their family member. From some people he asked for money in the name of sharing the exact location of their missing family members, while others were tricked into believing that the police team following the leads were stuck as the official vehicle had run out of fuel and they needed either petrol or had to book a cab,” said DCP (north) Meena.

Police said it’s not clear how many of those 904 families fell for the scam. “We approached the UPI service providers of all the accounts that were linked to Chauhan. We also began contacting all the families that he had contacted in the last four months. So far, we have found around 50 such families who were duped. Some lost 2,000, others lost 40,000,” said the DCP.

Police claimed that during interrogation, he revealed that his average daily earning was approximately 10,000, and that he collected 10-12 lakh since last July.

“Chauhan told us that he spent that money on buying an Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max, which costs 1.5 lakh. He spent the rest of the money on parties. The day his earnings would exceed 10,000, he would buy a bottle of premium alcohol, which costs no less than 5,000,” Walia said.

Modus operandi

Police said that while working in Delhi in 2022, Chauhan heard about his neighbour’s missing child, and how the family’s phone number was available on ZIPNet for public to help with tips.

“During interrogation, he said that it was then that he checked ZIPNet and other government portals where details of missing people were uploaded and made visible to the public. He carefully read each case, their physical descriptions, identifications marks, and other details and then called the family member whose number was mentioned on the site, pretending to be a cop and seek money one way or the other,” said Walia.

In August 2023, he succeeded for the first time, making 2,000 from a hopeful family. Police said that the highest sum they found during the analysis of his UPI account records was 40,000 that he received from the family of a teenager who went missing from Kalyanpuri in November 2023.

On December 6 last year, a case under section 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was registered against him at Delhi’s Wazirabad police station, after a complaint was received from Markanday, who had given him 8,000 last November.

“I am unemployed and relied on my savings to run the house. Losing 8,000 to a scamster has hurt us. It’s a lot of money for us. My daughter is back home, and now I am waiting for my money to come back,” said Markandey.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Karn Pratap Singh has been writing on crime, policing, and issues of safety in Delhi for almost a decade. He covers high-intensity spot news, including terror strikes, serial blasts and security threats in the national capital.

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