On April 12, 2023, I received three missed calls on WhatsApp from an international phone number starting from +62 (country code for Indonesia). At that time, I didn’t give it much thought. In the following days, I received more calls on my WhatsApp from unknown international numbers, some starting with +84 (code for Vietnam), and +223 (code for Mali).
Turns out, I am not alone to have received these suspicious calls from international numbers on WhatsApp. A quick search on Twitter revealed there are a lot of people, mostly Indians, who have reported about receiving such calls. Some of these examples are here, here, and here.
Unsurprisingly, most of these international calls and texts are aimed at scamming people. For instance, a user Shreyansh Jain tweeted a screenshot of a text message on WhatsApp. In the screenshot, the sender introduces itself as “HR Priscilla Barret” and offers “a part-time job.”
And what’s the job, you’d wonder. The sender offers the recipient to earn Rs 50 per like on YouTube video and you can earn up to “10000 Rs” every day. Clearly, it’s a scam.
In most of such cases, senders from these international numbers pretend to be HR representatives of a company, and luring the recipient into joining the likes-on-YouTube-videos-for-money scheme.
“Nowadays, it’s not only the scam calls, the process has become more digital & omnichannel including WhatsAapp messages, SMS and LinkedIn messages,” Bhaskar Majumdar, a senior communication consultant, told Entrackr.
“On average I get a minimum of two calls a week (at odd times & from India and international numbers both) & an equal number of WhatsApp messages and on LinkedIn too,” he added.
The wave of such scam calls, especially on WhatsApp, seems to be unprecedented. While scamsters have long tried to leverage the conventional text messaging (SMS) to target people, using WhatsApp at such a scale seems new.
Ritesh Bhatia, founding director of V4WEB Cybersecurity, explains its plausible that scammers may have bought VoIP numbers for WhatsApp online to target users. He pointed out that purchasing such virtual numbers for the purpose of using only WhatsApp is also quite easy.
Another plausible reason, he added, that scamsters have purchased international numbers in bulk just for scamming people. For instance, I could ask my friend in Dubai to buy a local SIM, and activate WhatsApp here (punching in the verification code), and use the number to target people. It’s not necessary for scamsters to have actually traveled to these international destinations to pull off such stunts.
“Also, these scamsters [across geographies] are well coordinated. And very much like a mafia, they are in this together,” he said.
Entrackr understands that WhatsApp is aware about these scamsters targeting people on the instant messaging service. Already, it runs high-decibel safety awareness campaigns, cautioning users about frauds and scams.
As far as built-in security features are concerned, users can report and block these fraud numbers.
“Over the years, we have consistently invested in Artificial Intelligence and other state of the art technology, data scientists and experts, and in processes, in order to keep our users safe on our platform,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told Entrackr.
Moreover, WhatsApp is now regularly publishing its monthly transparency report as per the IT guidelines.
“Between 1 Mar, 2023 and 31 Mar 2023, 4,715,906 WhatsApp accounts were banned. 1,659,385 of these accounts were proactively banned, before any reports from users,” WhatsApp’s latest transparency report read.
That said, spam through conventional SMS has already been a big menace in India. The telecom operators in India already are finding it tough to deal with the growing number of pesky commercial calls and texts.
Even as scamsters targeting WhatsApp users at such scale is new, it’s not really surprising as most of the mobile internet users in India use the instant messaging for communication (messaging, voice and video calling, and even businesses). WhatsApp has nearly 500 million users in India, one of the largest userbases for the company in the world.
For now, users are advised not to engage with unknown international calls or messages, and promptly block them.