x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fraudsters target Etisalat mobile users

In a fresh twist on an old scam, fraudsters posing as Etisalat agents have been calling people and claiming they have won up to Dh1 million.

A man scammed out of Dh4,300 by fake Etisalat agents.
A man scammed out of Dh4,300 by fake Etisalat agents.

In a fresh twist on an old scam, fraudsters posing as Etisalat agents have been calling people and claiming they have won up to Dh1 million. In the past, customers had received text messages about phony winnings, which were promised to mobile users who revealed the pin numbers of high-value prepaid phone cards.

The latest scam began in recent weeks, Etisalat confirmed, with the company's customer-service representatives logging dozens of inquiries and complaints in the past week. The fraudsters call Etisalat subscribers from a local mobile number, congratulating them on winning a lottery. They are informed that their SIM cards, beginning with serial numbers 89971, match the winning digits. The scam artists instruct the victims to call back, at which point they are told they cannot collect their prize until they receive a password, which can be accessed only after the customer buys large sums of Etisalat credit and surrenders the scratch-card digits.

Prabhjot Verma, 30, was among the scores of people who were cheated, after she received a call from a local mobile number on Thursday. "He said I won two lahk dirhams (Dh200,000)," said Mrs Verma, an Indian housewife who lost Dh4,250 (US$1,160) to the scheme. "I don't know, but something happened while talking to him, like everything blocked in my mind. I didn't even change from my night suit and I took my baby with me also in his night suit to the bank."

The caller, who gave the name Sunil and preferred to speak in Hindi, asked Mrs Verma to check her SIM card to see if it matched a five-digit number that he recited. "I saw they matched, so I was convinced," she said. "I called back, and he said: 'Yes, so you're the winner'." But to collect the cash prize, Mrs Verma said she was asked to get phone-credit vouchers worth Dh1,550 and convey the pin. As with other victims, Mrs Verma was not aware that the first five digits of all Etisalat SIM cards are 89971. She and her husband, Gaurav, arrived in Dubai 10 months ago from India and had never heard of such scams.

Sending Dh1,550 and then another Dh2,700 worth of Wasel credit was necessary, Mrs Verma was told, to "unlock" a special reference number needed to claim her prize. Any UAE Exchange or Dubai Islamic Bank branch would provide the cash, the criminals said. Instead, the scammers immediately drained her recharge funds. "I called him again and he was saying we'll never be able to track his number," Mr Verma said. "The weird thing I found is that you can call them right now and somebody will pick up. Nobody has disconnected this number."

Fahad al Balooshi, a customer-service agent with Dubai Islamic Bank's Al Nasr Square branch in Dubai, said he alerted management about the scam. The UAE Exchange in Abu Dhabi Mall has encountered at least 15 victims this month. UAE Exchange said in an official statement that it had been getting fraud notifications from people since January 9 and was taking up the issue legally. Several victims provided the same mobile phone number for the phony Etisalat operators: +971506988749. When The National called the number a man giving the name Sunil Sherma "from Etisalat main airport office" congratulated the caller and requested passport details a prohibited practice according to Etisalat's standard procedure.

"Right now I am sitting before the system of Etisalat," the respondent said in English. "But, sir, the system are showing about your SIM card you only put in like Dh25. I tell you what to do: You need to buy Dh1,000 credit. Call back after five minutes and tell me the pin numbers for my system." The scratch-card numbers, he said, would allow him to provide the caller with a "special check number" needed to claim Dh1m.

He advised buying Wasel scratch cards in denominations of Dh500, but not to recharge the phone. Upon calling back, another person answered without identifying himself. When asked multiple times if he had reached Etisalat, he sounded confused. "No English. No Arabic. Hindi only," he said, before "Sunil" again took the line. "Sunil" could not recall the caller's name, despite claiming minutes earlier that he was one of two jackpot winners.

The caller provided fake scratch-card numbers and was given an 11-digit code to pick up a prize. "I would say that this is a new face for an old scam," said Major Faisal al Shammari, who works with Abu Dhabi Police central operations. "Technique is the same by concept, but the means is different." Tracking the scam phone number is possible, he said, adding that the Abu Dhabi Police have both an organised crime division and a section tackling electronic crimes.

Etisalat said in a statement: "The recent round of fraud calls have been pouring in - even though Etisalat is not running any promotion right now." The company added: "Etisalat can take necessary action, such as freezing of the scammer's number, only upon the directions of the police." The mobile number was still being answered on Friday. @Email:mkwong@thenational.ae