Online fraud: In pandemic, fake travel agents forced to take a hike
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Travel was the first activity to be grounded when the world was hit by Covid-19. Then came the body blow taken by related businesses such as travel agencies, tour operators and the hospitality business were the casualties that followed. However, in a welcome fallout, losses have also been incurred by scamsters and cybercriminals posing as travel agents, who made their money by taking thousands of people for a ride.

A senior cyber official said, the pandemic-induced lockdown and travel restrictions not only spelt doom for travel agencies, airlines and others, but also for cyber fraudsters, who lured potential victims with emails/offers of cheap air tickets for last-minute travel and holiday packages. Consequently, crimes involving fake travel package offers and air ticket frauds have taken a hit since the lockdown was put in place.

In this Covid crisis, vacations and international tours seem like a distant dream and thus, the dreams of those dreaming up schemes for the unwary have also been shattered. In the pre-pandemic era, people would often receive e-mails offering exciting discounts on last-minute air travel, which would normally be almost double the prices of air tickets in a planned trip.

Explaining the modus operandi of these air travel frauds, the official said, these criminals thrive on airline-specific accounts available for sale on the darknet, giving them access to frequent flier lists and mileage accrued. This information is then exploited by fraudsters who pay for it in bitcoins and e-mail their potential victims.

Once the victim swallows the bait and clicks on the email link, they are directed to a ticketing website which is a clone of the original. The unsuspecting customer then wires the amount to the fraudster's account and is issued a fake ticket. The victim finds out they were conned only on reaching the airport.

Juhu Police had booked a Delhi-based travel agency earlier this year, for duping a 74-year-old suburban resident and six of her friends to the tune of Rs 70,000 each, under the pretext of sending them on a cruise to the Maldives in 2017. For three years, the company kept postponing the trip, duping the seniors.

A cyber police officer said, last year, around April, a huge number of cheating cases came to the fore -- the modus operandi was to lure prospective vacationers with the fake website of a holiday package portal and dupe them of thousands of rupees. “This type of cheating is at its peak before the onset of the holiday season and later, when citizens are looking for last-minute bargains. As part of their con, the accused creates a website and contacts the victim, based on their search algorithms,” said a cyber officer.

When similar complaints started pouring in, police shut down such websites, to prevent other people from being conned. “In 2019, Mumbai Cyber Police shut down 57 such fake travel websites reported by victims. Interestingly, the websites were remarkably similar to the originals but there would be a few giveaways, which would go unnoticed by people without technological expertise,” said a police officer, requesting confidentiality.

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