Scammers game Google, try to steal provident fund money by conning people on phone
In the digital world, identities can be faked easily. And scammers in India, and definitely in Mumbai, are impersonating workers of Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) and calling people to get key and private details that may help them steal money from PF account. The scam is apparently so widespread and grave that EPFO recently took out an advertisement in a newspaper calling attention to it, and warning people against talking to scammers calling from one particular number. The key bit about this number is that it is listed as the official number of EPFO branch in Bandra on Google.
In other words, what is going on here is that scammers have somehow found a way to get their number into the Google listing for the Bandra office of EPFO and are then calling people from that number to get private details of PF account holders. And people are apparently giving these scammers the details because the number from which the call is originating genuinely seems to be from EFPO office. And how do they know? Because Google said so.
So, not only the scammers are fooling the PF account holders, but they have also managed to fool Google, which is actually not as difficult as many may believe.
PF scam and how it (possibly) works
Earlier this month, the EPFO office in Bandra published a public notice in the local newspapers with a bizarre piece of information. The public notice stated that Google Search for the contact number for EPFO, Bandra Office 1, 2, 3 and 4 was showing a cell number which didn’t belong to the organisation.
The organisation cautioned all PF account holders against sharing their PAN card details, Aadhaar card and ATM card number to any person calling from number “09102195592”. The organisation said that the details given to scammers could be used to modify or change KYC status of a Universal Account Number, which in turn might lead to the account holder losing money. “All the EPFO subscribers/ members/ pensioners are hereby informed not to reveal any financial and identity records to the said number,” the organisation said.
The notice added the matter had been reported to the Mumbai Police. Before publishing its public notice, the organisation conducted an investigation of its own, which revealed that the number– 09102195592– belonged to a man called Deepak Sharma, who was asking the EPFO members for their personal details. The organisation arrived at this conclusion by looking the number up at the caller ID service Truecaller.
How 09102195592 ended up on Google as EPFO office number
It sounds mysterious, but it is not. We all believe in Google and trust its search engine to find the right information. And Google makes a lot of effort to ensure that this trust is not misplaced. But at the same time, do understand that Google is primarily a directory for all the information that is out available on the web, and it is known to goof up from time to time because it can be gamed.
When users ask Google for a piece of information, it tries to give them answer. For example, if you ask Google “where is India Today office” it will most likely give you the address detailed on the Indian Today website. But occasionally it also pulls in information from other websites that it believes are accurate. For example, for phone numbers and addresses it may use a directory service and if the information is wrong in the directory, Google will show wrong information. So if scammers want to game Google, all they need to do is game the directory.
This seems to have happened in this case. The Mumbai Police in its initial investigation found out that the number was also listed against the EPFO’s Bandra website on Just Dial. It is possibly that Google took the same number from Just Dial website.
Now, comes the question what PF account holders should do? Well, be careful. In fact, ensure that you don’t reveal key details such as your bank account numbers, Aadhaar card details, date of birth, local residence, postal address etc to anyone on a phone call. Do this only if you know and trust the person on the other end of the call.
The scams where scammers call people and ask them to reveal OTPs and bank account details are increasing in India. People have lost — and in some cases a lot — money in such scams. Don’t believe just because Google or some other website confirms that a number is “genuine”, it is indeed genuine.