Man travels 1,000 miles to claim bogus prize
- 7 February 2014
- From the section Magazine
An Indian villager recently travelled more than a thousand miles to the BBC office in Delhi in an unusual quest - to claim millions of rupees he believed he had won in a "BBC lottery".
Ratan Kumar Malbisoi, a 41-year-old unemployed Indian villager, fell for a message he received on his mobile phone nearly two years ago.
"The message said I had won the BBC's national lottery for 20 or 30 million rupees ($319,000-$478,000; £194,000-£292,000). I was asked to send my details so that they could send me the money," he says.
A poor man, with little formal education, he was unable to fathom that this was a phishing message and that he was being "scammed".
Around the same time, I and several of my colleagues also received similar messages. The texts evoked much mirth, but we all deleted them and forgot about them.
But Malbisoi got in touch with the scammers, emailed them his bank details and account statement, and spoke to them several times over the past two years, beseeching them to send him the promised funds.
Last month, he travelled about 1,700km (1,000 miles) from his remote village in the eastern state of Orissa to the BBC office in Delhi with a lot of hope.
He had borrowed money from some friends and arrived in the city while it was in the grip of a cold snap, dressed in just a shirt and a pair of trousers.
His train had arrived the evening before and he says he spent the night on the platform before reaching the BBC office in the morning.
He was referred to me because when he presented himself at the reception desk, he asked to see a Geeta or Smita - he said in one of the calls he had received from the "BBC office", the caller had identified herself by one of the two names.
What he told me was that when he received the first text message in April 2012, he lost no time in responding with his name and address. Within a few hours, the scammers called him back.
"The caller said he was the BBC's chancellor. He spoke really well. He promised me a large sum of money but said I would have to first send 12,000 rupees ($191; £117) so that he can transfer the money into an RBI account." RBI or the Reserve Bank of India is the country's central bank.
"I told them I was a very poor man and that I didn't have any money to give them. He said then they couldn't pay me any money, but over a period of time, we kept negotiating and they finally asked me for 4,000 rupees," he says.
Malbisoi said he was unable to pay even that amount. At one point, he says, he suggested to them to "just deduct 4,000 rupees from my winnings and send me the rest". They told him that would not be possible.
So, he sent them a letter, informing them about his poor family.
"I told them about my wife and our three daughters. I said I lived in a village on the edge of the jungle, and that I had no home and requested them to help me." He also enclosed a family photo.
He says the "BBC chancellor" was always sympathetic, he said he would come to India and visit him. The last time Malbisoi spoke to him was in November last year.
"I told him I had lost my mother and he asked me if I had received the cheque they'd sent for me. When he spoke about the cheque, I decided to come to the BBC office to find out if a cheque had arrived here for me," he says.
Malbisoi is convinced that the call came to him from Britain. On the face of it, it does look like a UK number but experts say it is very difficult to establish that it really is located there.
Cyber law expert Pavan Duggal says these are known as "mask numbers" - they usually don't emanate from a mobile phone but come from a website and one can get a number to make it look like it's originated from London or New York or Paris or, for that matter, Delhi.
Duggal describes it as an "old Nigerian 419 scam" - so called after the section of the Nigerian law which deals with cheating and fraud.
The BBC has offered guidance to people receiving these messages, which Delhi-based technology writer Prasanto K Roy says are "rampant" and "dangerous". The scammers use names like the BBC or Coca Cola because these sound credible and they are names likely to be known to the target, he says.
"And obviously there are enough [people], mostly in small towns or villages, who are not much educated and not internet or tech savvy."
In India, Roy says scammers use more text messages than emails, to target their victims because the reach of the mobile phone is much wider than computers. I receive two or three every day.
India is one of the world's fastest growing mobile phone markets with 890 million users and, according to the Telecoms Regulatory Authority of India, Indians send some 890 million messages every day.
Even though there are no definitive statistics available, experts say millions of these messages are spam. Add to that millions of scamming messages sent from internet-based services and the numbers become mind-boggling.
The mobile number Malbisoi gave me was answered by a man who spoke in an accent that sounded more like African than British.
He introduced himself as Scott Smith, said he was based in the UK, but refused to tell me his job title. Once I told him I was calling from the BBC office, he became increasingly aggressive.
"I am very busy and I cannot speak to you. I will report you to the police and get you investigated. I don't believe you are from the BBC and I would get you arrested if I could see you," he said before hanging up.
Malbisoi made it home safely, although empty-handed, after two days in Delhi. But I'm not sure I was able to convince him that the "BBC chancellor" he had been speaking to was in reality a scammer.
"I never felt he was trying to cheat me. I liked speaking with him, he was always very nice," he said adding that he never complained to the police.
"If they don't want to give me the money, I can't force them. It's their money."