In June, Chadha created a profile on the job listings website Monster.com and uploaded her résumé. Given her lack of qualifications, the 19-year-old didn’t expect her inbox to be flooded with offers.
But that’s exactly what happened. Dozens of people claiming to represent famous Indian and multinational corporations such as Samsung, Dell, and Airtel wrote to Chadha offering jobs at domestic and international call centres with “good salary packages and unlimited incentives”. Each email began the same way — “Your résumé has been shortlisted for an interview” — and ended the same way — “Call Now”.
This mysterious bounty of job offers was, as Chadha initially suspected, too good to be true. Over the next month, she would go on a wild-goose chase across Delhi following false promises made by job recruiters.
“All they want is to take our money and keep lying,” said Chadha of the people she met in the job-placement industry. “Now I don’t even want a job.”
This type of scam is largely new. A decade ago, call centre jobs were pouring into India. Chadha could have found one quickly. In recent years, however, the economy has not been creating nearly enough jobs for the approximately 12 million people who enter the workforce annually, giving greater power to anyone who promises employment.
Today’s job seekers, meanwhile, are uniquely vulnerable to getting duped. Newspapers once limited the number of public job listings and charged a fee for each one, making it relatively difficult and expensive to run a scam. Now, most people immediately turn to the internet to search for openings. Yet scammers have realized that the accessibility and anonymity of the web offers the perfect vehicle for deception.
As a result, job scams are proliferating. An analysis by Hindustan Times of media coverage between September 2016 and September 2017 revealed 140 job scams reported from 35 cities across India, from Delhi to Bhubaneswar to Cochin. Only half these news reports included the number of victims; together, they add up to 30,000 people scammed.
Interviews with senior police officers in five different cities confirmed that a dearth of new jobs and the rise of internet access have led to a surge in such scams. The Bengaluru police department registered 32 cases from the beginning of this year through July, as opposed to six in all of 2016 and only two in 2015. The Hyderabad police registered 225 cases this year through September, as opposed to 171 in 2016 and 131 in 2015. S Jayaram, the additional commissioner of the cybercrime division of the Hyderabad police, said online job frauds are the most commonly reported cybercrime in the city.
In the news reports collected by Hindustan Times, scamming victims paid as little as Rs 200 and as much as Rs 30 lakh to get jobs that were not truly offered to them. In 29 of the news reports, victims lost more than Rs 1 lakh. The offers were made on behalf of a wide range of employers: the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Madras high court, Hindustan Aeronautics, Mitsubishi, Patanjali Ayurved…
Consumer complaint websites are full of stories about unemployed people being exploited by dodgy job websites. Placement agencies guarantee jobs that don’t exist. Visa firms do the same, except their clients have to land in a foreign country to figure it out. Sometimes under business pressure, staff members of even genuine job portals, such as Naukri and Shine (owned by HT Media Ltd, which publishes Hindustan Times), have been accused of promising jobs in exchange for the purchase of their services.
Some people who pay money to get jobs do end up employed, but often in an improbable profession: call centre scammer. The scams might involve tech support, insurance, banking, travel, or even employment. That’s right: many job scammers are themselves the victims of a job scam. There is no clearer indication of this business’s devilish brilliance.
Entering the maze
On June 9, Chadha called the number at the bottom of one of the emails she had received.
There was little else in the emails besides offers and phone numbers; none provided a physical address or even a website. Instead of full names, the recruiters identified themselves only by generic first names attached to the label “HR”: HR Amit, HR Riya, HR Prince.
The widespread use by job agents of the abbreviation for ‘human resources’ is intended to signify legitimacy and professionalism. In fact, these HRs tend to be middlemen between job seekers and fraudulent agencies.
Chadha can’t remember the name of the HR she spoke to over the phone — it was too brief an interaction. He asked for neither her name nor her qualifications, and directed her to Zenith Infotech, a placement agency in Karol Bagh.
The next day, a college friend of Chadha’s, Riitu, who was also looking for a summer job, accompanied her to Zenith. At her interview, Chadha was asked to introduce herself and to spell out the acronym BPO. (It stands for ‘business process outsourcing’, a term for the practice, common in India, of contracting a company’s services to a third party.)
Chadha succeeded at these simple tasks, and her interviewer proceeded to lay out her future career path at the company she was about to join, complete with quarterly performance appraisals. In return for a slip of paper confirming her job at this company, whose name remained a mystery, the interviewer asked Chadha to deposit Rs 500.
Chadha had absolute trust in the job promise she had received. All that stood between her and an international calling job, she had been told by Zenith Infotech, was basic training in BPO work.
Following directions sent in an SMS from Zenith, she travelled to Divine Kamal Public School in Uttam Nagar on June 10 for a two-hour class that was supposed to seal the deal. When she arrived, Chadha saw that she wasn’t the only one who’d received such an offer. “There were at least 700 other people in the school on that Saturday,” she said.
Repeated visits by Hindustan Times to Divine and interviews with people who attended classes elsewhere showed that training centres follow the same pattern.
Before they are herded into six or seven classrooms across three floors of the school, the job seekers at Divine are made to stand in one long queue stretching from the building’s entrance to its top floor. Everyone pays Rs 1,000 for the “training”. In return, their slips from placement agencies get a stamp reading “P.A.I.D.”
On the first Sunday in June, the classes were packed with people from a variety of backgrounds. There was a 17-year-old high school graduate, a middle-aged man who had failed at business, a 22-year-old who had paid Rs 8 lakh to study engineering at a private college, and a 25-year-old who had quit a call center job and couldn’t find another. Some were locals from Delhi; others had come to the capital city looking for work.
The job seekers were taught technical terms about the different categories of call centres and what they do. Three-fourths of class time was spent on the art of self-introduction. “If you know how to introduce yourself,” the students were told, “you can get past 70% of interviews.” The trainer had a formula: first state your name, then where you are from, where you live, your education, your experience, and, finally, your hobbies.
Some job seekers likely wondered why they were being taught interview tips given that they had already landed jobs. They found out when class ended.
“If you know how to introduce yourself,” the students were told, “you can get past 70% of interviews.”
In a span of seconds, Divine Kamal Public School transformed into a jobs fair. As many as four companies interviewed candidates in a single classroom, HRs taking the corners and job seekers sitting in rows facing them. So began the next round of interviews for jobs that had already been “confirmed”.
Some of the job seekers never received another call after the interviews at the training centre. Some, even if they had supposedly received an offer to work at Amazon or Snapdeal or Flipkart, got a call directing them to an obscure local company for a subsequent round of interviews. Others were sent by an HR back to a placement agency to start all over again.
Chadha and Riitu both left Divine with an offer letter and received text messages the next day directing them to a call centre in Kirti Nagar for yet another interview. On June 20, they set out looking for the office. It took them an hour to locate the address in the neighbourhood’s maze of sofa sets, bathroom fittings, and marble blocks. When they finally stood in front of the building where they were supposed to start their careers, the young women couldn’t believe their eyes.
“It was like a ghost building — a three storey in which the first two storeys were barely constructed, all brick pillars and rubble,” said Chadha. “I wish I could explain to you the atmosphere of that place. There was not a single fan. Cobwebs covered the walls. There were piles of sand on the floor.” Yet “four to five people were sitting at desks and talking on phones”.
“It was like a ghost building — a three storey in which the first two storeys were barely constructed, all brick pillars and rubble,” said Chadha.
As Chadha and Riitu stood stunned at the top of the staircase, they were approached by an older woman who asked them to follow her to a final interview. “She put us through such a strict interview as if she was going to pay us 50,000 to 60,000 rupees as salary,” said Chadha.
She offered each of the girls a job in international calling, but at a monthly salary of onlyRs 10,000, five thousand rupees less than what Chadha had been told to expect. “She said I should be happy someone was paying me that much,” said Chadha.
She and Riitu had had enough. They fled the building and called their contact person at Zenith Infotech. “You must be crazy to think we will work at a place like this!” shouted Chadha into her phone. The agent asked them not to worry; he had another, better job for them. All they had to do was go to another building in Kirti Nagar.
How to be a big man
Chadha’s fate was in the hands of the people who control placement agencies. While investigating the employment industry under the cover of being job seekers, we met a placement agent who spoke freely about the nature of the business. We’ll call him Sunil Kumar.
A lanky, long-haired 26-year-old, Kumar moved from Allahabad to Delhi eight years ago. He has since become a veteran of the jobs placement business, which he defends — sort of. “In Delhi, you can’t become a big man without pulling some kind of fraud,” he told Hindustan Times with a smile.
Kumar makes Rs 1.5 lakh a month and employs eight people. He said he doesn’t have to work anymore to earn this income; the money just keeps on coming. In the free time he is thus left with, Kumar said, he likes to dance and play cricket.
He insisted that he hasn’t fully let go of his conscience. Unlike most of his colleagues in the placement business, Kumar said, he never takes money from job seekers. “I feel it is just unethical to take money from the kids. I only take money from companies: Rs 2,000 for placing one kid. If I place 50 kids in one month, it’s enough money for me.” Of course, Kumar went on to add, he usually ends up making more than that without sacrificing his creative passions.
The way Kumar sees it, not all job frauds are equally fraudulent. He replied vaguely when asked if everyone his team promises a job ultimately gets one. Only one of the five job seekers he directed from Divine Kamal Public School to his clients on June 4 was placed by the next week; Kumar said he couldn’t always influence the final outcome. This, according to him, is the operative principle of low-end placement: some job seekers will get placed and some won’t.
A venue like Divine Kamal Public School, said Kumar, is an open market for job seekers, or “bachhe” (kids) as they are referred to in the business. “I told the event organisers of Divine: ‘Give me 50 bachhe per month, all for international calling jobs, and I will pay you one lakh rupees.’ They tell me, ‘Take 50 in a day.’”
Other people in the industry are less opportunistic about training centres. “The training centres are just a way to extract money from job seekers,” said Shivani Sapra, the co-founder of a placement agency called Jobsdeed. Sapra told Hindustan Times that it’s not unusual for job seekers to be directed from a training centre back to a placement agency.
Despite suggesting that training centres are a scam, Sapra also said that her company occasionally relies on them. When her HRs can’t find their quota of job seekers to send her for the week, they are often forced to tap into an open market such as Divine Kamal Public School.
When told of HT’s findings — over seven visits to the school — that attendees were either falsely promised jobs or placed in dubious call centres, Tandon prevaricated. “If this might have happened, it is a matter of investigation for me. This is news to me.”
At the office of the organiser of the training sessions, a placement agency in Barakhamba Road called Tech Planner, an employee who identified himself as HR Sumit accepted that some job seekers are promised jobs they do not ultimately receive. All attendees should, he said, either get placed or get a refund. “But see the job market is so bad, and the companies are not ready to pay any more than 8,000 rupees salary, so many job seekers themselves refuse to join,” he said. Asked about attendees who complain that they did not get a refund or a job, Sumit blamed competitors trying to malign his agency’s name.
Sunil Kumar spoke in favour of other dubious aspects of the job-placement business aside from training centres. For instance, he defended the tendency of recruiters such as himself to place job seekers at call centres perpetrating cons: “See, every call centre is engaged in one or the other kind of fraud. You can’t do much.”
He has pondered the implications of helping to staff scamming groups. “If [job seekers] call you and complain that they are made to take part in a scam, you say, ‘Is that so?’ You try your best to act in their interest. You say, ‘Why don’t you stick it out until the end of the month and get out after collecting the salary and join another company?’”
This way, he said, he can kill two birds with one stone. Not only has he shrugged off his own responsibility in the matter, he gets to keep a “captive” pool of “bachhe” to peddle.
“No one works at a [con] call centre for more than a month,” he said. “Unko fatoon chadh jaata hai (a madness comes over them). They think, ‘This fraud money can come to me instead of going to the company.’” Kumar’s business thrives on the fact that con call centres are always short of employees. When we talked in June, Kumar said he had 2,500 to 3,000 openings to fill.
Follow the leader
In order to identify people he can place at dubious call centres, Kumar hunts through job seekers’ profiles on Naukri.com. He is one of the more than 60,000 clients of the website who can access 100 CVs a day at the rate of Rs 10 per CV.
Big jobs websites like Naukri, which boasts 120,000 listings and 40 million users, are co-opted as tools by scammers who do not represent them. Fraudsters frequently use Naukri, for instance, to advertise fake jobs. “We have 5,000-7,000 postings every day. We can’t manually check each for legitimacy,” said Hitesh Oberoi, the CEO of Info Edge, the parent company of Naukri.com. “But we remove a post immediately if a job seeker or a company makes a complaint, or if we come across a post in which money is demanded, or if one ad is posted multiple times. We have a section on the website alerting job seekers of scams. Some months ago, we introduced KYC for clients.”
In addition to advertising fake jobs, scammers create fake emails in the name of Naukri.com to lure job seekers. According to Amitendra Singh, the in-house lawyer of Info Edge, in June alone the company received 700 complaints of job scammers impersonating Naukri.
Some impersonators go beyond fake email addresses, creating whole new websites that riff on the names of the industry leaders. “One of our biggest problems is domain name squatters,” said Oberoi. “We lose crores in revenue to others posing as Naukri. We have come across so many Naukri aliases over the years: Naukre.com, Naukrinews.com, CVnaukri.com, Naukari.com.” Singh said the company had taken at least 100 domain name squatters to court in the last three years.
Between 2013 and 2016, for example, a website called NowNaukri.com offered jobs at big-name companies such as IBM, Wipro, Amazon and Tata Technologies. According to complaints made by its clients, transactions with NowNaukri.com tended to be one-way: clients spent money, but NowNaukri did nothing.
In 2016, Info Edge filed two cases against NowNaukri. The first was a suit, at a civil court in Delhi, alleging the unlawful exploitation of Naukri’s trade name; the second, at the high court of Delhi, accused NowNaukri of “impersonating and representing to the world at large that it is connected with and a part of the plaintiff organisation”.
The first case was settled in May 2017, with NowNaukri promising not to infringe on the trademark of Naukri in any way. The case against NowNaukri in the Delhi high court is still pending. This May, meanwhile, Mumbai police arrested an ex-director of NowNaukri LLP, Hemant Suri, for cheating 700 job aspirants out of Rs 18 crore, said Santosh Gaikwad, the investigating officer in the case, to Hindustan Times. Suri is currently in a Mumbai jail.
A quick escape
Unaware of the existence of this criminal network, Chadha and Riitu travelled to the next Kirti Nagar destination recommended by their placement agent. There’s no signboard outside, but say “sheeshe walla call centre” to any rickshaw driver at the Kirti Nagar metro station and he’ll go hurtling down smoggy lanes without a word. Only the people who work there know the name of the tall, glass building at the end of a back alley: Ornatus Solutions.
Chadha had been through three interviews by now and hoped this would be the last. Everything about the inside of this call centre was different from the one she had just fled. Nearly a hundred young employees sat in cubicles in a spacious, air-conditioned office. They seemed poised and well trained.
When she was finally called, the interview didn’t last long. As Chadha introduced herself, the resident HR went through her résumé and informed her that they weren’t “hiring freshers. Only experienced people.”
Chadha was infuriated. “We wouldn’t have paid 1,500 rupees and travelled so far if we knew you wouldn’t hire us,” said Chadha. Her interviewer wasn’t moved. “You are mature enough to know where and who to pay money and where and who not to pay,” she replied, according to Chadha.
Coming out of the building, Chadha called Zenith Infotech once again, this time to demand a refund. “The guy said, ‘Okay!’ But he said he is on leave on that day. I said, ‘What about tomorrow?’ He said his ma’am will be on leave. I said, ‘Okay, why don’t you tell us when to come?’ He said, ‘I will call and let you know in a day or two.’”
Real job or job-ish?
One day after Deepika Chadha left Ornatus Solutions, another young woman showed up there from that weekend’s batch of trainees at Divine Kamal Public School. Neetu Khatri, a 21-year-old from Narela with blond streaks in her hair, went through the same interview as Chadha and was hired.
She learned that Ornatus sells the services of a website by the name of Jobishh. Khatri’s job was to dial numbers off a list and rattle off a script. She made a total of 160 calls on her first day of work. Each began the same way: “My name is Neetu. I am calling from Jobishh. We have your CV with us. Are you looking for a job or a job change? We have opportunities for you.”
In a matter of days, Khatri had transformed from the victim of a fake-jobs scam into the perpetrator of one.
On May 31, Naveen Ramachandran, a 39-year-old mid-level manager in Dubai, got a call from another Jobishh employee reading off the same script as Khatri. The person on the phone told him he had been shortlisted for jobs in three well-known companies in the UAE, and that he needed to go to a website called Jobishh and pay for its placement services. These include Designer Resume (Rs 3,050), Social Media Profile Builder (Rs 4,650), and Live Interview Preparation (Rs 5,050).
Ramachandran, who said he had been “desperate for a job”, duly chose the package suggested to him. One of the services was “International Carrier Expert Senior Level”, which cost Rs 30,000. Subsequent phone calls kept getting passed from one Jobishh executive to another. “Every time they told me that this is the last payment and they kept on demanding,” Ramachandran said. “I trusted them.” He made a series of payments on the website totalling, he said, Rs 84,750.
Only after he paid did Ramachandran receive an email detailing the company’s terms and conditions, which include the line “Jobishh does not and cannot guarantee any job or job offering, under any circumstances whatsoever”. The terms also mentioned that a refund must be sought within 24 hours of a payment. Ramachandran said he called up the company’s number asking for a refund just a few hours later, but was told that it was already too late. He decided he might as well go along with the process.
Finally, Ramachandran went online and ran a search on Jobishh. He could have spent days going through all the testimonials of Jobishh victims on consumer complaint portals.
Twenty days after he was first called by Jobishh, Ramachandran received another call from them that caused him to freeze for its sheer brazenness. “[They] started with the same story that my CV has been shortlisted and [asked] whether I am interested and so on…” Did Jobbishh think it could scam him all over again?
According to Smiley Kapoor, who worked on the first floor of Ornatus Solutions for one month in late 2016, no more than four Jobishh clients called the company’s landline asking for a refund over the duration of her employment. Most others, she suggested, were grateful to escape the con and carried on with their lives.
Why do hundreds of young employees participate in the Jobishh’s con fully aware of its potential illegality and ethical dubiousness? “You think the people who run these call centres are making so much money every day, you might as well make some of it while you are here,” said Kapoor. She quit within a month of joining in late 2016.
Varun Gupta, who worked at Ornatus between August and September 2016, agreed. “If you can get one or two months’ room rent, then why not?”
“An informal arrangement”
There were 1.5 million job ads on Jobishh’s website as of the first week of October. Most ended with the name of the same recruiting company: Touching Heights Business Solutions LLP. Touching Heights happened to be Jobishh’s parent company. Going by registration records publicly available on the website of the ministry of corporate affairs, Jobishh was only one entity in a sprawling network of companies and individuals running jobs scams.
One “designated partner” of Touching Heights, for example, is Akash Attre, who is also a “designated partner” of Qserv Business Solutions LLP. Qserv, in turn, owns an outsourcing company called Trounce Infotech and a jobs website called Quickjobzz.com, which is a recurring name in consumer complaints about job fraud. Attre is one of Trounce Infotech’s co-directors; the other is his wife, Shruti Attre, who used to be an additional director of Ornatus.
A network of companies, websites and individuals that make up a job scam
Shruti Attre also used to be a “designated partner” of NowNaukri LLP, the corporate title of a jobs website company sued by Naukri.com for impersonation and cheating. Shruti was the lead accused in that case. Of the two current “designated partners” of NowNaukri LLP, one, Naveen Bisht Singh, is also a director of Ornatus Solutions; the other, Hemant Suri, was once a director of Trounce Infotech. He is the same man who was arrested by Mumbai police in May for running a job racket.
Repeated requests for an interview with Akash Attre were declined by his office. His executive assistant, Charu Talwar, said that he is “not related to Jobishh in any capacity”. “Mr Attre joined the board of Touching Heights a few months ago in the capacity of an investor,” she continued, “but he resigned within two months as the business deal couldn’t materialise.”
Speaking to Hindustan Times in July, the CEO of Touching Heights, Lovjil Mukund, denied that his call centre employees sell fake job offers: “Jobishh promises neither jobs nor interviews. We provide three major services: résumé preparation, social media content writing and career consultant support.” So why did people receive calls from Jobishh asking them if they want a job and claiming to know of specific offers? “We just inform the candidates about openings which we come across on the internet that matches their profile,” he said.
The title bar of the website contained the words “recruitment”, “job search”, “employment” and “vacancies”. But “Jobishh is not a job portal,” Mukund stressed. So why did its website regularly update job openings “across 41 industries”? He said the service was temporary. He also said that most companies listed on the website were placement consultancies with whom Jobishh had “an informal arrangement. We pass the details of the candidates to these consultants and see if they have opportunities.”
Reached for comment, representatives of Benette Technologies and Brill Infosystems, two small tech companies that were listed as having openings on Jobishh.com, said that they had never heard of Jobishh. “We don’t post job ads online,” said a representative of Benette. “We have never advertised on Jobishh.”
Mukund said he was not surprised by the companies’ responses. He suggested that it is not necessary for these entities — which were featured on Jobishh’s website under the section “Tieups With Our Company” — to know about Jobishh. “We don’t sign a mutual agreement or engage in a formal tie-up with the companies listed,” he said.
When Jobishh came across job openings on other platforms, “we interact with the relevant contact person — HR executive or someone — and get the email ID where one should send them the résumés.”
Mukund said Jobishh was happy to “refund money to those who misunderstand our services. We have a 24-hour refund policy.” Yet Naveen Ramachandran said that when he asked for a refund, he was told that a “refund is not possible because the service has been activated.”
In August, a month after Hindustan Times interviewed Mukund, Jobishh added a blinking red banner to its website saying that the website “will never” ask people to make payments into “someone’s personal account”; that its clients should not share their financial information “with anyone”; and that Jobishh cannot “guarantee any interview calls, job offers, or meetings with prospective employers”.
“Out of the 160 people I called today, 10 said that they have experience with Jobishh earlier and if I call them again, they will report it to the police.”
By the end of her first week at Ornatus, Neetu Khatri said she’d learned the truth about her job. “It’s not a genuine company. They are scamming. I don’t know if they are providing these jobs and services. We can’t know the reality. But we have to convince the customers to sign up.”
She wasn’t finding the job easy. “It’s really hard to make a sale. It’s very easy for people to check the name online and find all the complaints. Out of the 160 people I called today, 10 said that they have experience with Jobishh earlier and if I call them again, they will report it to the police.”
Khatri felt guilty participating in a scam, but she also felt she was being taken advantage of herself. Like most youngsters who go through the same journey — from uploading their CV online to showing up at remote corners of the city — she was slowly realising that if a job existed at the end of it all, it must come with a catch.
There’s always another call centre
Conversations with four reputed lawyers and recent law enforcement activities all suggest that Jobishh-style operations break the law. “There may be some disclaimer or T&Cs somewhere on the website, but the fact that they are offering jobs from companies is a misrepresentation,” said Rahul Sahay, an advocate at the Delhi high court. “There is an intention to cheat. They are taking money for something they know they can’t ensure. It would count as an offence under Sections 432, 420 [of the Indian Penal Code].”
Police departments across the country have taken action against job sites and call centres similar to Jobishh and Ornatus. In May, for instance, Delhi police arrested the two “masterminds” of Zeeobs.com, which called people promising nonexistent jobs in exchange for cash. They had made at least Rs 30 lakh over the previous four months.
In the first week of October, Jobishh and Quickjobzz, which are owned by the same network of individuals, posted notices on their home pages announcing that they had “closed operations until further notice” and would be delivering services only to “existing customers.” Including NowNaukri, which closed in mid-2016, the network has shut down three jobs websites in just over a year, illustrating the fly-by-night nature of the fake-job industry.
Khatri quit Jobishh after just a month, and is currently looking for another job. Deepika Chadha has now given up any hope of getting a refund from Zenith Infotech. “We have been calling the helpline number, but not getting any response. We called so many times.”
On 14 August, when Hindustan Times called the number, a man answered who identified himself as HR Sameer and said he was the owner of the placement agency. According to Sameer, Zenith Infotech makes sure everyone who pays them for a job gets one somewhere.
What about Chadha and Riitu? “Someone in our team must have made a mistake,” he said before continuing in a familiar vein. “Do they still want to be placed? I have a call centre in Shadipur where I can send them.”[“Source-hindustantimes”]