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Hoax callers target WhatsApp users with phishing attempts

About 500 million WhatsApp users in India have been at the receiving end of scams. While a job scam—citing promising part-time employment opportunities—has been widely reported since the start of 2023, over the past week, social media has been abuzz with users in India complaining of missed calls from countries like Ethiopia (+251), Malaysia (+60), Indonesia (+62), Kenya (+254), Vietnam (+84) and many others.

What’s important to note is that these code numbers do not necessarily mean that the calls are originating from these countries. According to multiple reports, agencies are selling these overseas numbers to local scammers.

There is no information on who these callers are and why they use WhatsApp for this scam. It is not even clear how these calls can affect users and who is tracking them.

When CNCB-TV18 reached out to WhatsApp, it said via a statement, “We apply spam detection technology to spot and take action on accounts engaging in abnormal behaviour to stop spam. We have a grievance officer based in India who can be contacted if a user has a concern about their experience and is unable to report it through other channels. The reports detail user complaints received and the corresponding action taken by WhatsApp, as well as WhatsApp’s own preventive actions to combat abuse on the platform.”

In addition, the messaging platform claimed it has launched a marketing campaign “stay safe with WhatsApp” to educate users about its in-built product features and safety tools like Two-Step Verification, Block and Report and Privacy controls, which equip people with the necessary safeguards to help protect them from online scams, frauds and account compromising threats.

In its ‘Monthly India Report’, until May 1, the Meta-owned social conversation platform claimed to have banned more than 47 lakh malicious WhatsApp accounts in India. The messaging platform said that it received 4,720 reports in March in India and acted on 585 of them.

“We do see these patterns happening globally and we are getting reports that it’s increasing in India too. It’s all about how these scammers can get people to answer the calls. They have found platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram to make these calls. Remember for scammers, this is their full-time job. They will figure out new and cheaper ways to reach consumers,” said Alan Mamedi, Co-Founder and CEO, Truecaller, in an exclusive chat with CNBC-TV18.

Mamedi further added, “It’s harmless to answer calls, just like any other spam call. The problem is if you click on links and start engaging in these conversations. We at Truecaller believe it’s going to be a huge problem if these scammers start adding voice assistance using AI models to these calls and pretend to be someone you know.”

Truecaller will soon start making its caller identification service available over WhatsApp and other messaging apps to help users spot potential spam calls over the internet, the company told CNBC-TV18 on Monday.

The feature, currently in beta testing, will be rolled out globally later in May, Mamedi added.

“Anyone can join our beta program on Google Play. It’s absolutely free for anyone to use. It will show Caller ID for calls on WhatsApp, Telegram and will work on other messaging apps too. We see all these calling patterns and know in real time through our AI identity model if it’s a good actor or a bad actor,” said Mamedi.

He further stated that for iPhone users, last month they had rolled out live-Caller id powered by Siri.

Telemarketing and scamming calls have been on the rise in countries like India, where users get about 17 spam calls per month on average, according to a 2021 report by Truecaller. For Truecaller, India is its biggest market with 250 million users. It has 350 million users globally and earns its revenue from advertising, subscription services, and verified listings from businesses. CNBCTV18

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