Saturday, May 18, 2024

From deception to courtroom: Legal recourse for victims against fraudsters

Thrilling scenes on screens, whether it is crime, drama or science fiction, are often exciting. However, what if those scenarios from reel life were to become a reality? In such circumstances, it becomes unclear how one should respond or what actions should be take. These questions remain unanswered, leaving us uncertain about how to navigate such situations.

The country is currently experiencing a notable increase in activities of individuals akin to ‘Mr. Natwarlal’ (impostors and fraudsters). These conmen are employing innovative techniques to deceive unsuspecting people.

Staying in a luxurious five-star hotel for a remarkable duration of 603 days, and that too without any cost, is an experience beyond the realm of most people’s wildest dreams. Yet, this incredible situation became a reality at the Roseate House, a five-star property in Delhi’s Aerocity.

An unidentified individual checked into the hotel, initially booking a room for just one night. However, he managed to remain in the hotel for a staggering two years, without paying throughout the entire duration.

Allegedly, the mounting bills were kept hidden by a staff member who kept on extending his stay. Details of how this was done are said to include fiddling with other guests’ bills or simply swapping one for the other.

‘As per hotel rules, if a guest owes more than Rs 50,000 to the hotel, the staff has to inform the seniors and push the guest for payment. However, this was not done in this case,’ advocate Anant Malik told.

In another instance, a man pretending to be a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family cheated the Leela Palace Hotel. He stayed for three months without paying the bill, which amounted to lakhs of rupees. Additionally, he also stole silverware and other items from the hotel room, resulting in a total of approximately Rs 23-24 lakhs.

During the investigation, it was discovered that he had used a fake business card and posed as an important official from the UAE government. He also provided a resident card from the UAE. To settle his dues, he gave the hotel a post-dated cheque and falsely claimed to work for Sheikh Falah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s office, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family.

Another startling case of such a nature involves a fraudster from Ahmedabad, who impersonated as a high-ranking PMO official and availed VIP treatment without attracting any suspicion.

The man moved around in a bulletproof vehicle with Z-plus security and enjoyed 5-star facilities and even went to the extent of threatening legitimate bureaucrats and cops with transfers during his several trips to Jammu and Kashmir and visited sensitive locations not open to the common public.

Adding to the list of these novel covert yet overt heists is the case of a self-proclaimed financial influencer, called ‘FinFluencer’ who alongwith his wife has fled the country after their alleged involvement in a Rs 300 crore home-based drug racket

Though the details of the drug business are yet to be disclosed, it was also found that the couple were involved in illegal trading business and projected themselves as experts in stock market trading.

Almost 98 per cent of the investors had never met the couple as they were receiving decent returns on their investments which gave them no reason to suspect anything regarding the company.

‘The common thread running in all these cases is the game that is played on the simplistic and unsuspecting nature of the individual being duped. These activities are carried out so overtly and in an apparent legitimate looking fashion that something wrong happening in front of one’s eyes is overlooked due to small human errors, which is what actually fuels their game plan and incentivises the fraudsters to catch a new target,’ Malik said.

Despite the presence of legal regulations, both in civil and criminal aspects, to aid affected individuals or organisations, the crucial concern that emerges is the level of effectiveness these provisions demonstrate in addressing the concerns of the complainant or plaintiff.

‘Regarding criminal actions, one has the right to file a First Information Report (FIR) for various offenses in under various Sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) like Section 409 (Criminal breach of trust by an agent), Section 418 — cheating with knowledge that wrongful loss may ensue to person whose interest offender is bound to protect,’ Malik explains.

Section 420 (Cheating) can lead to imprisonment for up to seven years, in addition to a fine. Section 467 (Forgery of Valuable Security, etc.), Section 468 (Forgery for the Purpose of Cheating).

Counterfeiting device or mark used for authenticating documents other than those described in Section 467 or possessing counterfeit marked material (Section 476) can lead to imprisonment for up to seven years, in addition to a fine.

Under Section 409, a person can be handed life imprisonment or imprisonment for up to 10 years, along with the possibility of a fine.

‘For cheating, a person is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, or a fine, or both, when committed with awareness that it may result in harm to the person whose interests the offender is obligated to protect,’ Malik said.

‘Once the FIR is lodged in such cases, the accused is treated in criminal court. However, in such cases criminals get bail easily most of the time and proceeding in court takes time and sometimes even years,’ said Vineet Jindal, a Supreme Court lawyer.

Furthermore, the victim can also pursue the civil remedy to recover their money and seek compensation for the damages caused by these ill acts.

‘Most of the hotels do not opt to go for civil cases. The money can be recovered in such incidents through civil cases,’ Jindal said.

However, litigation is a long drawn tedious process and at times even nabbing such persons takes a long time.

‘By the time these scams even come to the surface, the accused is already on a plane to a country which probably has a weak or no Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the requesting country.

‘Even if all goes well and the accused is nabbed and remanded, the investigation in such large scams entails a whole paper and money trail and filing of chargesheets takes time. The nature of the offences and fixed timelines for filing chargesheets allows the courts in such a case to grant bail to the accused. Though this is a welcome and much revered provision in cases of false implication, the benefit of the same is also used by these wrong elements of society.

‘This is the boon and the bane of the law. The only remedy in such a situation would be to speed up the investigation before the accused flees and to legislate a mechanism to be able to sift through between the innocent and those appearing to be innocent,’ Malik explained.

Legal measures come later, but first one has to see the internal discipline, the deficit of which has tremendously contributed in such heists to be successful.

Legal actions are taken only after addressing the underlying issue of inadequate internal controls. It is important to examine the internal discipline, as the lack thereof has significantly contributed to the success of such heists.

In both the cases involving the 5-star hotels, there was an internal failure of the system and management.

‘Collusion in one and indifference and lack of proper background check in the other has highlighted a major folly in the working of the internal management,’ said Malik.

Even in the case of the impersonation as a PMO official, the accused was freely roaming around for months in sensitive government locations which points more at their verification and checking process than the legal system.

Malik said that having access to such areas and sensitive data with simply a mock convoy/escorts and forged papers, should be a wake-up-call for the security deployed for the purpose of verification to allow the entry and exit of officials.

‘Apart from general awareness and the concept of caveat emptor (buyer beware), there must be regulations in place on the easy access to technology, specifically several editing apps that allow tech-savvy individuals to easily forge papers/licenses,’ he said.

Organisations, be it hotels or hospitals must establish strict background verification checks of not only the guests but also the staff.

Regular shuffling of the staff to different departments and instant modes of payment can also be some measures to combat and prevent such incidents.



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