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Dubai: Dubai-based former Bollywood actress Ruchika Panday blinked in exasperation as the cashier at Godrej Nature’s Basket Grocery store in Mumbai returned her debit card citing insufficient funds.

Surely this can’t be true, Ruchika said to herself. Just days back, she had sold her Dubai apartment and deposited around Dh800,000 from the proceeds into her UAE bank account.

In the mistaken belief that the transaction had been declined because of a faulty card reader, Ruchika paid the store in cash and forgot about the incident.

A staggering 3.72 million UAE consumers lost approximately Dh3.86 billion ($1.05 billion) to cybercrime in 2017.

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It was the beginning of a downward spiral in the life of Pandey, who starred opposite Akshay Kumar in Mr Bond and Asif Sheikh in Yaraa Dildara in the 90s.

Unknown to her, someone had convinced her mobile operator to issue him a replacement SIM card which was then used to drain her bank account. The cyber thief left just a little over Dh50 in her account.

Pandey is not the only victim of the insidious SIM swap scam — see fact boxes below — which has left a trail of devastated lives across the UAE.

Identity theft horror

A Russian expat lost Dh13.4 million, an Italian Dh24,000, a Moroccan Dh9 million, a Dubai businessman Dh1 million and yet another victim about Dh800,000. The list is long.

In most cases, by the time the victims could wise up to the scam, the criminals had fled the country.

A staggering 3.72 million UAE consumers lost approximately Dh3.86 billion ($1.05 billion) to cybercrime in 2017, according to US-based security software giant Norton by Symantec.

That’s more than half of the UAE’s adult population. In Dubai alone, of the 1,400 odd cybercrimes recorded in the past three years, as many as 711 were related to hacking of bank accounts.

But raw figures cannot portray the horror identity theft crimes leave in their wake.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Ask Dubai-based Mahammadali Kowtalam. The 36-year-old Indian expat is living a nightmare since discovering that as many as 184 Sim cards have been issued in his name without his knowledge.

“I am a victim of identity theft. I did not swipe my Emirates ID anywhere. Instead, its photocopies were used to issue 92 SIM cards each from the two UAE-based telecom operators. What would I ever do with so many SIMs?" Kowtalam told Gulf News.

"The signature on the subscription forms are not mine and, nor for that matter, the email address, contact numbers submitted alongside. I’ve knocked at various doors for justice Now I’ve debt collectors knocking at my doors as there are outstanding bills on some of these phone numbers. I am barely able to sleep or focus on my work,” Kowtalam added..

A similar ploy was used to obtain 25 SIM cards in the names of Pakistani expat Mirza Mohammad Azeem Mirza and four in the name of Filipino Benrolin Morilla Lagarbe.

Like Kowtalam, they are also suffering mental anguish after being threatened with potential law suits over nearly Dh15,000 worth of unpaid bills.

“I lost my Emirates ID and got a new one issued yet my lost ID continues to haunt me. It’s obvious someone used it to subscribe to 25 GSM postpaid and prepaid phone numbers because the signatures on the forms are not mine and the documents attached with it are fake,” said Mirza who has been living in the UAE since 1973.

1406

cyber fraud cases were recorded by Dubai Police in the last three years

Financially and emotionally wrecked, Ruchika, meanwhile, is struggling to make ends meet and undergoing psychological therapy at Rashid Hospital.

“My life has been turned upside down overnight. I am broke and have to borrow money from family and friends to survive. The money stolen from my bank is all I had. I don’t know how long I can manage like this. My business is in ruins. I am shattered,” she said, choking between tears.

Another identity theft victim, Pakistani driver Zair Mohammad, 37, is no less traumatised. His Emirates ID was used to hire a Mercedes SUV from a car rental firm which has filed case against Zair for defaulting on payment. Long after Zair left the UAE, he received the second shock. As it turns out, a copy of his Emirates ID was used again – this time to borrow Dh27,000 from a moneylender while he was still in Pakistan. “I am a poor man with little resources. I don’t know what to do,” he said.

Instances also abound where residents have become victims of ID theft after handing out their identification documents to people they trust.

A case in point is that of an Indian maid Pratibha Prakash Rao, 57, who was left aghast after finding that she’s the owner of a company she hadn’t even heard of. She had given her passport to her employer to cancel her visa. But instead, he got it stamped with a residency visa showing her as partner in a Dubai based firm. As a result, Pratibha remained stuck in the UAE until a Dubai-based law firm bailed her out.

More instances of the scam:

Unresolved crisis

184 SIM cards have issued in my name without my knowledge.

- Mahammadali Kowtalam, 36, Indian

"As many as 184 SIM cards, 92 each of the two UAE-based telecom operators, have been issued under my name without my knowledge. Someone stole my identity because I never subscribed to any of these phone numbers which are now linked to my accounts. Of the 184 SIM cards, three are post paid which have raked up over Dh6,500 in bills. I have lodged complaints but my issue remains unresolved. Worse, I am now being chased by debt collectors."

Shattered

Criminals siphoned Dh800,000 from my bank account.

- Ruchika Panday, Indian

"I sold my apartment and deposited the proceeds into my bank before going to India. Behind my back someone used forged documents to transfer my phone number to a company and then seek a replacement SIM which was subsequently used to authorise a bank transfer of Dh800,000 from my account. I am shattered. My life, my fashion designing business – everything is in ruins. I am living off friends."

My Emirates ID copy has been used to rent car, take loan.

- Zair Mohammad

“Photocopies of my Emirates ID have been used to rent cars and take loans in my name. As a result I am now facing legal implications. I was in the process of getting my visa cancelled when I found out that there’s a case filed against me by a car rental firm from which I had supposedly rented a G55 Mercedes and defaulted on its payment. I received the second shock after I left the country. As it turns out, someone had used my Emirates ID copy to borrow Dh27,000 from a money lender."

Lost ID used to subscribe to four cellphone numbers.

- Benrolin Morilla Lagarbe Jr, Filipino

"I lost my Emirates ID in Sharjah. To my utter horror I have now found out that my ID has been used to subscribe to four cellphone numbers. I have filed complaints with the telecom operator and the police but my problem remains unresolved. If that were not bad enough I am being asked to clear unpaid bills of around Dh10,000 for these numbers. I never signed any subscription form. I am just a victim."

How the SIM swap scam works
■ Criminals convince a mobile operator to issue them with a replacement Sim card, by claiming false identity/pretending their mobile phone has been lost or stolen.

■ With the replacement Sim, the victim’s Sim card stops working even as the criminal gains to access any online service that requires security codes to be sent to a user’s mobile phone.

■ Using One Time Passwords (OTPs) alerts criminals online banking profile settings by adding/setting up withdrawal accounts.

■ They start draining the victim’s bank account. Banks do ask for confirmation via text messages to the phone number but since it’s already with the criminal, victims remain in the dark.
Simple ways to protect yourself from SIM swap fraud
■ If your cellphone number stops working for an unknown reason, get in touch with your telecom operator immediately.

■ Register your number for SMS and email alerts to stay updated about transaction on your bank account.

■ Don’t respond to unsolicited calls and text messages asking for your bank details.