Collective failure

Collective failure

Lately, scammers have been invading the data safety and financial security of WhatsApp users in India by luring them into façade of financial and employment gains. The ‘missed call job scam’ has come into particular focus. India offers a fertile ground for WhatsApp scammers broadly for two reasons. Firstly, India reportedly boasts of the largest number of WhatsApp users globally, with the user base standing at a staggering 487 million — leaving Brazil the distant second at 119 million. Also, the penetration level of the messaging app in India, as of April 2022, was 97.1 per cent, only behind Brazil. The enormous number of WhatsApp users in India can be attributed to its high population. Secondly, unemployment among youths has been one of the most pressing socio-economic problems facing the country. As per data by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), India’s unemployment rate touched a three-month high of 7.8 per cent in March. At the same time, the labour force participation rate marginally fell to 39.8 per cent and employment rate dropped to 36.7 per cent. The employment/unemployment scenario, compounded with widespread digital illiteracy, has made India a ready target for WhatsApp scams. However, India’s socio-economic realities have only created the ambience. The real curse lies in the disproportionate misuse of emerging technological advancements. While on one hand, governments and corporations have realised the potential of the vast distributive leverage that messaging apps like WhatsApp provide, the scammers, too, have been in the race to exploit such platforms. Their means and methods are getting more sophisticated with each passing day. Given the amount of illegitimate income they might be generating, the scammers have come in a position to invest in building fraudulent tools and organising their operations in a sophisticated manner. Be it the tracing of targets, encashing their socio-economic vulnerabilities or laundering the income generated — their functioning is increasingly becoming more streamlined. As far as the ‘missed call job scam’ is concerned, a survey by LocalCircles has revealed that 46 per cent of WhatsApp users in India have been targeted with a recurring series of audio-video calls, predominantly from international numbers. In most likelihood, the scammers have somehow gained access to a leaked database of WhatsApp numbers. Alternatively, they might be analysing the patterns in a range of meta-data to target the customers. Reassuringly, the Indian government has taken cognisance of the matter, and is mulling over issuing a formal notice to the messaging company. WhatsApp, meanwhile, is emphasising on the ‘stay safe with WhatsApp’ campaign. In a way, it has reposed trust in its existing safety features and privacy controls, while also conveying its approach towards the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to reduce such incidents. While the company’s stress on increasing awareness about the existing safety features is an imperative, that is just one part of the solution. As far as the use of AI and ML is concerned, one must not forget that well-organised scammer syndicates, too, are in the race to exploit the same. It is very important that WhatsApp doesn’t deal with the recent streak of frauds through just a crisis-management approach. It needs to carry out some long-term planning, along with investments, to make the application’s functioning fool-proof and resilient to advanced threats that scammers may come up with in the future. The responsibility of the government also doesn’t end with issuing notice to the messaging company. It needs to recognise the deeper maladies of unemployment and digital illiteracy that plague Indian society. The employment scenario in India particularly awaits a big boost, or else the country’s youth will keep falling desperately for petty lures thrown by scammers. Furthermore, with a wide range of disruptive technologies coming to the fore, there is an urgency to make people digitally literate, because newer forms of cyber threats will keep haunting the masses. For the time being, the responsibility rests on the shoulders of people to abstain from receiving calls from unknown numbers. People should also try to make the most out of the messaging app’s safety features and privacy controls.

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