A young friend took his life last week. He had got into some kind of online gambling/multi-level marketing scheme through a chat platform of (allegedly) Russian origin. He kept winning initially but soon found himself in deep debt.

A sudden loss of a few lakhs was too much for him to bear — he came from an economically-challenged background — and he leapt to his death from the terrace of a mall one evening.

Difficult to say why a young, talented man of 26 would want to end his life for a few lakhs, but I am convinced a rapacious, exploitative and obviously illegal group of people are out to ruin many young Indian lives.

Unless we act fast

How can you get conned online? Besides someone stealing your credit card or bank account numbers, there’s also a host of new, crooked schemes that would put our Nigerian friends to shame.

A few of the models are: getting paid for downloading apps, buying hot cryptocurrencies through middlemen, authoring e-books and getting paid for clicks, Work from home and even weight loss schemes (seriously!)

Some red flags

* High returns with zero risk.

* The earlier you join, the richer you become.

* Being compensated for bringing in new members

* The more you invest, the more money you get.

* They over-promote but never deliver.

* You have been asked to sell products that you either haven’t seen or are still in the development phase.

* Avoid joining MLM companies selling stocks, crypto currencies, web spaces, clicks, asking you to watch advertisements, send and receive sms and emails.

* Never blindly trust a social media influencer’s videos claiming they became rich by investing in an MLM scheme.

Digital marketing scams

How can we leave digital marketing out? Some of the biggest scams were perpetrated by digital marketing agencies in the early 00s — thankfully there’s far more accountability now. But there are lakhs of scamsters still around.

Here are a few top ones that SMEs would want to take note of.

#1: The ‘Buy Likes/Followers’ Scam

#2: The ‘We’ll Get You On Page 1 of Google’ Scam

#3: The ‘We are ChatGPTexperts’ Scam

#4: The ‘Cheap Website’ Scam

#5: ‘Fake Traffic’ Scam

Anyone can get conned online

Self-confidence is one major factor that causes people to fall for scams. People of any age who believe they are too smart or well-informed to be tricked are very likely to become victims.

Most scams depend on a psychological technique that’s now called social engineering. People make bad decisions when an emotion — fear, anger, greed — becomes so strong that the thinking parts of the brain essentially shut down. The con artists excel in using social engineering to stimulate strong emotions.

Also, the stereotype is that older people with reduced cognitive abilities are the most likely to be scammed. Not true at all, going by the sad example of my friend.

So what’s the govt doing?

Recently, there has been a lot of buzz around the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDP), 2022, which is designed to champion — and balance — both India’s growing digital economy and the privacy rights of Digital Nagriks (citizens).

The DPDP specifies heavy penalties for data breaches, up to ₹250 crore. Recognising the additional risks and harm that children face, the Bill also includes guardrails to ensure parental consent is taken for the processing of children’s data. In fact, the government has also prohibited the use of data to profile children.

The Covid-19 pandemic greatly put children at risk of online sexual exploitation and abuse. A third of the parents among the respondents of the report ‘POCSO and Beyond: Understanding Online Safety during Covid’ (released January 18, 2023) found that strangers approached their children via online platforms.

In most cases, the perpetrators offered friendship, then fished for personal details and offered sexual advice. The children were trapped into receiving inappropriate content and were dragged into sexual conversations online.

The Government is working on a Digital India Act to stop the internet-aided circulation of illegal, criminal and child sexual abuse material, says Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State, Ministry of Electronics and IT.

AI to the rescue

“Earlier, we were in a world where the more data you had, the more problems you had. Now with deep learning, the more data the better.” - Elie Bursztein, head of anti-abuse research team at Google.

In recent years, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning has emerged as the go-to technology for amplifying the efforts of human information security teams.

AI provides the much-needed instant analysis and threat identification that can be acted upon by cybersecurity professionals to reduce risk.

Can AI spot and stop scamsters and fraudsters dead in their tracks? Can it save lives like my young friend’s? Perhaps, yes!

(Shubho Sengupta is a digital marketer with an analogue ad agency past. He can be found @shubhos)