Picture this. You order a high-end smartphone from an online multi-brand shopping portal. The phone is delivered in the next few days. You are happy with the deal that you got online. You are showing off the new gadget to your friends and then suddenly the phone rings. It’s an unknown number. When you pick up the phone, it is the police. They have called to inform that you are using a stolen phone.
Your gut reaction is that it must be a prank. Because you bought the phone from a popular e-commerce website. How can they deal in stolen goods, you wonder. It takes you some time to realise that you have been taken for a ride. And that you are not the only one.
These calls were made as part of a police investigation into the theft of 600 high-end smartphones worth Rs 1 crore from the cargo hub of the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport in New Delhi. The pilferage came to light on 4 October when the mobiles went missing and airport staff could not find them anywhere on the premises.
The consignment was being transported by SVS Logistics, which approached the police to probe the theft. Examination of CCTV footage from the cargo terminal by the police, too, revealed no clues.
Later, tracking the IMEI numbers (unique to every phone), the police found that some of the stolen phones were being used in cities such as Mysore, Hyderabad, Jalandhar, Delhi and Chandigarh. That is how it emerged that the stolen phones had been sold through online shopping portal Flipkart. The vendor was Electronic Arena, which is also registered with other shopping portals such as Amazon and Snapdeal.
“The users showed us the purchase receipt and further investigation gave us clues about the modus operandi that the thieves used to sell the phones,” says Dinesh Kumar Gupta, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Airport). The police have so far arrested six persons in the case and recovered 209 mobile phones. A resident of Mahipalpur, an urban village a stone’s throw away from the airport, who was the driver of the vehicle that was used to transport the consignment from the aircraft to the cargo area, is the alleged “mastermind” in the case.
The police also sent a notice to Flipkart, but refused to share with Tehelka the response of the company, claiming that doing so would affect the investigation. Flipkart, on its part, only said what it has been saying all along: that it is “a digital marketplace that helps sellers connect with the customers across the country”. “Each and every one of our over 60,000 sellers are mandated to adhere to stringent guidelines. Any exception to, or violation of, this code of conduct is taken very seriously. We enforce a strict policy of zero tolerance against unscrupulous sellers who sell products that are fake, stolen or in violation of any applicable law of the land,” reads the company’s email response to Tehelka.
Even as the shopping portal tries to wash its hands off the incident, cyber law experts believe that Flipkart is as responsible as the vendor if it did not follow “due diligence” as described under the IT Act 2000. “Flipkart cannot evade responsibility unless it can prove that it exercised ‘due diligence’,” says Pavan Duggal, a cyber-law expert. “All online marketplaces are intermediaries under the IT Act and it is mandatory for them to discharge their obligations under the law.”
Welcome to the world of e-commerce, where a fake can land at your door packaged as the real McCoy. And worse, what you thought was a perfectly legal transaction could turn out to be an illegal one. It could well happen to you as anybody with a sales tax registration (and other documentation that are not difficult to procure) can become a vendor with a shopping website and an unscrupulous one might sell you stolen goods online.
And you could fall for the ruse because you find online shopping convenient, trust the online portal and assume that it would have followed “due diligence” in ruling out unscrupulous vendors. But the reality — as the stolen phones case shows — is something else.
So, just how do these e-commerce portals confirm that the products being sold by the vendors (who they call “authorised agents”) are genuine and not stolen? “There should be some checks and balances on the part of online portals,” says DCP Gupta. “They must ensure that the products sold on their website are genuine. The customers only know that they bought the goods from this or that shopping website.”
Mobile phones, cameras, jewellery and watches are stolen frequently from the airport cargo area at the IGI Airport. According to the DCP (Airport)’s office, 1,443 mobile phones were stolen between January and October, 2015.