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Are consumers’ interests safe in a digital world?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-05-2017 Shashi Shekhar

A government probe into malpractices by petrol pumps in Uttar Pradesh has brought to light certain facts that may shock you. The way technology was being used to pilfer petrol and diesel makes it clear that the interests of the average consumer are not safe anywhere.

An old incident comes to mind. Back in the 1980s, one of my friends got involved in a road mishap. A few days after the incident he began receiving postcards where the senders claimed they were lawyers. Contact us if you want to avoid paying compensation, they wrote. Instead of getting duped by this group of people, my friend decided to establish contact with the other party that had suffered in the accident. Both the persons were astonished to discover that the same people had been writing to them in a different language. One person was promised help to avoid paying compensation; the same so-called lawyers were claiming they would help the other group extract the maximum compensation from my friend.

My friend had got his car insured. When he contacted the insurance officials, he was advised to keep mum. These matters reach the court and after some negotiation, the insurance company pays compensation to the accident victim. It is a ‘setting’ that proves to be a win-win situation where nobody loses and everybody emerges a winner. He didn’t lose time in understanding where the hefty premiums that people pay to insurance companies were going.

Which is why, when former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao first spoke about economic liberalization, we felt we would break free from the tentacles of the bureaucracy. A work culture will be developed where everything will be transparent, we thought. If you recall, computers were slowly becoming a part of our lives. We were made to believe that transactions done through computers will be free of any kind of dishonesty.

None of us knew that this was merely a pipe dream.

We frequently keep hearing that an ATM has been hacked or someone’s credit card misused. Often the lack of computer literacy is blamed for this. But that is just half the truth. Large institutions and big industrialists are among victims of digital frauds. A few years ago, a famous Indian industrialist and his wife went out to dine at a Mumbai restaurant. He used his credit card to pay for the meal. The next day a message flashed on his mobile phone saying he had spent an amount of Rs2.5 lakh. Investigations revealed that an ordinary restaurant employee had managed to clone the credit card of the industrialist. Since he was an influential man, the criminals were apprehended.

Thousands of such cases involving similar frauds are pending with numerous law enforcement authorities. But there is no sign of redressal. People thought such frauds were limited to just ATMs and credit cards. But the revelations in the Uttar Pradesh petrol pump scam have proved that the rights of the consumer are not safe anywhere. For this, a chip was inserted in the cable of the petrol dispensing machine to steal as much as 50 to 100 ml per litre of petrol or diesel using a remote control. Where is the guarantee that this is not happening in other parts of the nation? Can anybody assure us that the digital scales used to weigh products of daily use that we buy are not being tampered with?

Digital transactions are a fact of life today, but the consumer was being cheated yesterday and he is being cheated today.

What can be done to prevent such incidents? A simple solution to this is strengthening our regulatory bodies. How can this be achieved? Important posts in our law enforcement agencies stay vacant for long periods of time. This happens because political patrons don’t find people ‘suitable’ to man these positions. Last year, the then chief justice of India T.S. Thakur had said that more than 70,000 judges at different levels of the judiciary were required to clear pending cases in the country. This has increased the judiciary’s workload and created numerous challenges for judicial processes.

When the posts of so many judges are lying vacant, who will bother about government panels and regulatory bodies?

Still, please keep something in mind. The basic premise of a democracy is the safeguarding of the rights of its citizens. Those brave warriors busy conducting virtual wars with Pakistan and China on social media should address this question: are the consumers who are being short-changed on every platform not a part of the world’s largest democracy?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.

His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.

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