New Delhi:

From fake drugs to fire extinguishers disguised as oxygen cylinders to recycled personal protective equipment, India’s coronavirus hell has been lucrative for its ever-inventive army of scammers, with sometimes deadly consequences.

Komal Taneja’s husband, Chandrakant, died of breathlessness at his New Delhi home last month after the oxygen canister they paid $ 200 for online never arrived.

“We desperately tried to find a hospital bed for a week … Two private hospitals asked us for a million rupees (10 lakhs) in advance,” Komal told AFP, his voice cracking on the phone.

“Then we came across an online contact who promised to deliver an oxygen cylinder one hour after making the Rs 15,000 payment. When we did, they asked for more money and then stopped responding,” Komal added.

Chandrakant, 36, who worked at the stock exchange, died on May 1, leaving his homemaker wife looking for a job to help care for her sick parents.

Scam Central

India has a long history of daring scams that scam ordinary people, even beyond its borders.

In a single typical case, in December police detained a call center that allegedly defrauded 4,500 Americans out of $ 14 million.

Posing as US officials, they told victims that their bank accounts were being used by drug cartels and that the only option was to convert their assets into bitcoins, which the gang would then collect.

An elaborate scam involving police and doctors that emerged in 2019 saw hundreds of villagers in Haryana declared dead in road accidents to claim insurance.

Crime Catalogs

Researchers say that many scammers have turned their attention to defrauding desperate Covid-19 patients and family members as India suffers from a devastating rise in coronavirus.

Narang, an executive at a private company in Noida, said he was scammed by a sophisticated scam when he was desperately searching for an oxygen concentrator for a sick friend.

“I found a link from a supplier that looked genuine and even had a catalog with different models. The prices were also competitive,” Narang told AFP.

“I spoke to a person on the phone. He asked me for about 45,000 rupees in two installments. He was sure it was genuine and even recommended this provider to another acquaintance.

The device never arrived.

600 cases

His case is one of at least 600 investigations launched by the police in New Delhi alone in recent weeks involving people desperately seeking oxygen, hospital beds and medicine.

“These criminals saw it as an opportune time to make an entry,” Senior Delhi Police Officer Shibesh Singh told AFP.

His Crime Branch teams have already arrested many scammers, including a gang that manufactured and sold counterfeit doses of the antiviral drug Remdesivir for up to 40 times the market price.

“These people were producing fake vials costing them around Rs 20 and they were selling it on the market for more than Rs 10,000,” Singh said.

In another case, a gang repainted fire extinguishers and sold them as oxygen cylinders, while another posed as doctors offering hospital beds that did not exist.

This week, six men were reportedly arrested on suspicion of washing, repacking and selling several tons of surgical gloves used in hospitals.

“We can only urge people to be more cautious in approaching those contacts for help online,” Singh said.

Some victims demand harsh punishments.

“Hang them all,” Narang said.

“If not, then the government should guarantee life imprisonment. This is not just mental or financial, they are gambling with human life.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is posted from a syndicated feed.)