Fake customer care numbers that lead to political party membership hotlines highlight the flawed nature of mobile membership registration.
New Delhi: 1800-103-4444. If you’re searching for how to contact Airtel customer care on Google, there’s a good chance you’ll stumble across this number.
Websites that call themselves everything from ‘customercarenumbers.in’ to ‘icustomercare.in’ flash ‘1800-103-4444’ as a toll-free number that can be used to get “general information on your Airtel post-paid or prepaid account”. If you do end up calling that number though, it kicks-off a process that ends in you becoming a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Over the last two years, India’s political parties have increasingly leveraged digital tools to boost membership enrolment and reach out to their voter bases. Last year, the BJP announced that it had over 85 million registered members – surpassing the membership base of the 80-year-old Communist Party of China. What surprised political observers at the time was the massive jump in the party’s membership: In November 2014, the BJP had only 35 million members.
The issue of websites advertising fake numbers, however, underscores the concerns raised by many political analysts; that the mobile registration of political party members may not increase political engagement and in some cases is a flawed method of showing political support.
Take the case of the fake Airtel customer care number. People who search for numbers on how to contact Airtel are very likely to stumble across 1800-103-4444 on a number of websites. Some of these websites, like icustomercare.in, take a great deal of effort to look somewhat like an official Airtel website. They list a host of genuine numbers but almost always include one fake number.
When The Wire tried calling 1800-103-4444 , the connection got cut off after a few rings. Within thirty seconds of disconnection, we received an SMS from a number id called ‘IM-SAMPRK’. Strangely, the SMS (shown below) received was in Tamil. It points out that in order to enrol for BJP membership, people should call the number listed in the message.
The number in the first SMS – 1800-266-2020 – is the official toll-free number for the BJP’s mobile membership registration. It’s the number on the BJP’s official website and the one advertised last year during their mobile registration outreach initiative.
Once this number is called, the call disconnects and almost immediately another SMS (shown above) is sent, this one telling us “Welcome to the BJP. Your membership number is 1111818459. Send details in order to complete the process…”
There are two potential problems here. The first is that people who don’t know Tamil might believe that the toll-free number listed in the first SMS is another Airtel customer care number.
Secondly, the fake Airtel customer care number appears to be linked to the BJP membership base. When we tried calling the original toll-free number again – ‘1800-103-4444’ – the call was disconnected after a few rings and we received yet another SMS in Tamil that informed us our “BJP membership number was 1111818459” and that we “should kindly” make sure that it was correct. Or in other words, the fake Airtel customer care, toll-free number recognises whether or not you have already signed up for BJP mobile membership registration.
A number of things need to be made clear here. Firstly, the toll-free number that is falsely advertised as an Airtel customer care number is not present on any of the company’s official websites. When contacted, a company spokesperson sent an e-mailed statement that read: “Airtel is unaware of any such sites and has no association, whatsoever, with these. We would advise our customers that for resolution of any service related issues they should reach us through our customer touch points – Airtel Stores, Airtel helpline number 121, Airtel website www.airtel.com, Airtel twitter handle @airtel_presence”.
Secondly, a number of political observers The Wire spoke to, however, noted that it was somewhat of a “common tactic” to set up dummy websites that linked back to a political party’s membership registration.
“The IT cells of various political parties do engage in this. In fact, when it comes to using fake company customer care numbers as a method of disguising the party’s membership hotline, such a complaint has already been sent to the Election Commission by a few parties. I am unaware whether it can or has been acted upon though,” a senior election campaign analyst told The Wire, who declined to be identified.
The Wire has reached out to the BJP IT cell for comment and this story will be updated later with the party’s perspective.
Last year the BJP’s strategy for increasing membership was three-fold: the party set up a website where people could fill in personal details and enrol for a cost of Rs 5. People could also enter their phone numbers on the BJP’s membership page (which curiously no longer works) and would be enrolled as members. And lastly, the party set up a toll-free number, where potential supporters could give a missed call to register as a member; this missed-call campaign would then ask for personal details and try to engage in local verification so as to complete the membership process.
This went a long way in boosting the party’s base to over 85 million members. At the time, however, a number of political analysts noted that these numbers needed to be taken with a grain of salt.
“Whose responsibility is it to take down these websites? At the end of the day numbers that boast of political party membership are largely harmless and mostly full of hot air. But if people are being cheated to give up their numbers to political parties like this, then it is an offence that should be looked at,” said the analyst quoted above.
*Story has been updated to include comment by an Airtel spokesperson.