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NEW DELHI : Daddy died four months ago, sir." The voice at the other end of the phone was of Rajesh R, who had put out an appeal on the crowdfunding platform Ketto, asking for help to treat his father’s acute pancreatitis.

But last Saturday, even as he revealed the news of his father’s death to Mint, the campaign was still alive on Ketto. Till then, it had attracted 229 donors, and raised around 2.3 lakh, against a goal of 4 lakh.

The deceased was 72-year-old Ganesan Arokiyanathan from Chennai, who worked as a labourer, according to one of his doctors. He suffered from alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis, and diabetes, among other diseases, and was hospitalised for a week in January.

Ketto closed the campaign on 20 September after Mint informed it that it was running a fundraiser for a dead man.

Another campaign to raise funds for Arokiyanathan is still active on the crowdfunding platform Milaap. Last week, between 17 and 20 September, it even got 2,000 in donations, reaching 74,912 against the target of 4 lakh. The platform said it is still verifying the news, and declined to comment further.

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Crowdfunding was just about picking up in India when the pandemic struck. Since then, a number of Indians struggling with exorbitant medical bills have turned to platforms like Ketto and Milaap. Medical crowdfunding now accounts for 90% of all campaigns run on Milaap. The platform supported about 45,000 campaigns (which raised 200 crore) in 2019, which increased to over 140,000 campaigns (which raised 700 crore) in 2021. For low-income or middle-class families, many of whom struggle to meet medical expenses in the absence of adequate public health infrastructure, such platforms offer a way to access medical care, without slipping into debt or economic ruin. But the greater reach of fundraising has also meant dodgy practices and swindlers taking advantage of loopholes in the verification process.

In the last couple of months, there have been several reports in social and mainstream media about suspicious campaigns running on crowdfunding platforms—some posted inflated estimates and bills and compromised documents, others attracted eye-popping large donation amounts. Milaap and Ketto have issued clarifications, taken down campaigns, but continue to maintain that less than 0.15% and 0.5%, respectively, of their campaigns have been reported or found as fraudulent. They also say they carry out various checks at different stages of the campaign to ensure no malpractice.

Mint took a closer look into a few campaigns to see if their claim checks out.

One family, many fundraisers

Eight months ago, Poonam Vijay Thakkar, a marketing professional and LinkedIn influencer, came across the Arokiyanathan campaign and thought something was iffy. For one, the LinkedIn profile which promoted the fundraiser went missing when she asked for details.

She reached out to Ketto for an update. When a Ketto representative told her that they can only do so much due diligence for every donation, she wrote a post on LinkedIn alerting other users. But by then, she had already donated 3,100. The campaign until then had raised approximately 2 lakh, according to her post.

In its reply to Mint, Ketto said that after Thakkar’s query, it had reached out to “the campaigner to clarify …and requested to submit additional documents to confirm the authenticity of the campaign. Upon inquiry, the campaigner uploaded the discharge summary and additional medical documents." It was only on 9 September that Rajesh R uploaded a discharge summary of his father, dated 7 January 2022, on Ketto.

When Mint reached out to hospitals, doctors and labs referenced in the fundraiser, what tumbled out was a story of one family running at least five funded campaigns that had raised close to 9 lakh. 3.6 lakh was withdrawn through Milaap. Ketto did not clarify how much was withdrawn through its platform. Some of these campaigns were based on forged bills.

First, let’s come to the case of the deceased patient. The doctor who has been treating him for many years was the first to inform Mint last Thursday that Arokiyanathan was dead. He was admitted at Mount Multispecialty Hospitals, Chennai, for six days in January on the doctor’s instructions. The hospital confirmed that it was paid 86,877 for treatment.

Could Arokiyanathan’s case simply be one of a campaigner forgetting to update the page with news of the death? Perhaps. But three other campaigns on Ketto and Milaap run by Arokiyanathan’s son suggest something murkier.

For instance, one Ketto campaign is raising money for the treatment of 36-year-old Pope Dharmaputhiran, in which the doctor cited above is also referred. According to the doctor, Dharmaputhiran is Arokiyanathan’s son. Like father, Dharmaputhiran has also been treated for alcohol-induced pancreatitis, gastritis and diabetes. Last month, he was admitted at Mount Multispecialty Hospitals for three days, for which the hospital was paid around 30,000. “If he wants to get better, he would have to stop drinking," said the doctor. Another online campaign for Dharmaputhiran is also running on Milaap. “Dharmaputhiran’s verified PAN establishes Arokiyanathan as his father. They also share the same address," said Milaap on 20 September.

So far, the Ketto campaign for Dharmaputhiran has fetched 78,854. Two things stand out. The fundraising goal of 8 lakh, which seems inflated given that he currently does not need any procedure, as confirmed by his doctor. Second, according to the documents on Ketto, the estimate comes from B M Hospital—which has been permanently shut down, and provides a healthcare consulting firm’s link as the hospital’s web address.

It gets more suspicious. One campaign each in Dharmaputhiran’s and his wife’s name pleads for funds for a bone marrow transplant for his three-year-old son, Simon Ganesan. The campaigns have collected 1,78,843 on Ketto and 3,34,908 on Milaap, against a goal of 20 lakh.

But the estimate and advance receipts submitted on Ketto under Simon’s fundraiser were all forged, as confirmed by Mount Multispeciality Hospital. This was brought to Ketto’s attention by Mint, but it had not responded till the time of going to press.

In June 2021, Milaap found the campaign for Simon to be fraudulent, and stopped the campaign; however, not before 2.9 lakh was transferred to Dharmaputhiran. Curiously, no update was posted on the campaign page for the benefit of donors. Moreover, refunds have not been issued even a year after Milaap discovered the fraud. Only on 20 September, after Mint reached out, it updated the campaign page to say that refunds would be deposited in 5-7 days.

Mint got in touch with Rajesh R through the phone number on both Arokiyanathan’s and Dharmaputhiran’s documents. Rajesh R confirmed his father’s death a few months ago. But he denied that his elder brother was called Pope, or that he ran other campaigns.

The loopholes

In many cases, crowdfunding platforms have shown a lack of readiness to act on red flags by donors or internet users.

In July last year, a LinkedIn user wrote to Ketto to flag a campaign by a woman called Shashi (Prabha). The campaign page shows she had raised 96,411 against a goal of 25 lakh for her son’s (Prateek Chauhan) heart treatment. The user got suspicious because he could not find any photo or details of the son on the campaign page, nor a proper address on the invoice. So when he asked for more details, his comments were deleted and he was blocked. A similar campaign in the name of Shashi Prabha was running on Milaap, which too the user reported. Ketto responded with a template reply. When he followed up, he was finally told that “we have stopped the campaign and have put the payout on hold."

All the documents submitted in the above campaign turned out to be fake. Heritage Hospitals in Agra denied that the documents were theirs. The logo used was a rip-off of the logo of Heritage Hospitals in Varanasi, which denied having any branch in Agra.

Milaap had already put her campaign on heart treatment, which had raised 15,000 in July last year, on hold because of a lack of KYC details and supporting documents. The post has been taken down upon the request of the fundraiser, and all refunds have been made. Ketto, however, says it will wait three more months for Shashi Prabha to “share the proofs" and refund money to donors if needed. Mint tried to reach out to Shashi Prabha through the Ketto page, but there was no response.

Anupam Mukerji, vice-president of marketing at IDfy (which provides fraud and risk and KYC solutions to enterprises), shared a standard list of checks which platforms could run. They could copy the text of the campaign and run a search query on it across platforms, check for repeated mentions of the same doctors, and verify if the email id and bank accounts were created close to the start of the campaign (usually a red flag), and so on, to take early action. This could go a long way in establishing donors’ trust.

The case of inflated bills

In August, a Mumbai-based cardiac surgeon Prashant Mishra flagged the case of medical fundraisers with inflated cost estimates. One such campaign Mishra highlighted on his Twitter handle on 22 August was of a 33-year-old Padamamma admitted at Continental Hospital in Hyderabad for a heart-related procedure. The estimate provided by the hospital was of 10 lakh, four times the maximum cost, according to Mishra. The campaign raised 7,52,293 with the help of 127 donors before closing on 24 August. When the invoice, dated 24 August, was uploaded on Ketto, the final amount was just 1.47 lakh.

Ketto, in its update on the page, had said that the balance amount would either be directed to another campaign, whose patient also had an estimate from Continental Hospital, or refunded to the donors.

The doctor, A Rama Krishnudu, whose reference was on the invoices, said that he was “zero percent" aware of the estimate, since doctors at the hospital are not part of financial matters. He said such a procedure should roughly cost 70,000, not even 1 lakh. A follow-up question to Continental Hospitals remains unanswered.

Ketto, in its earlier reply on the campaign, had said that the cost of treatment could vary from person to person depending on the stage of the ailment, choice of the hospital and care plan, effectively saying that it does not have a role in the estimate. But can it not include suspiciously high costs for a given treatment in its checklist of red flags, warranting further scrutiny of bills, follow-ups with the doctors? The above campaign was “Ketto Verified", which is a badge of assurance that the platform has gone a step deeper to authenticate them.

Why so generous?

Another suspicious aspect of the above campaign was the size of the donations—126 out of 127 donors contributed 1.5 lakh to the campaign, and one donor alone gave away 6 lakh, also highlighted by Mishra in his tweet.

Ketto, in its reply on whether it scrutinizes such outsized donations, said, “There is no upper limit. People can donate according to their choice and will." It also said it used a state-of-the-art AI-powered algorithm to check fraudulent transactions.

Milaap recently took down two campaign pages that received outsized donations between 15 August and 20 August from a handful of donors. The pages had raised 33.5 lakh and 22.3 lakh against a goal of 20 lakh and 10 lakh, respectively. The campaigns were funded by three and two supporters respectively, with Milaap matching 11.6% of the total donations by the supporters. The fundraiser himself or herself was a donor for the first campaign, and the rest were anonymous donors.

Milaap, in its statement, said, “Prima facie, it appears that the payments were made by beneficiary’s known contacts to maximise the benefit from matching donations." Milaap said that it was not authorised to comment further on these campaigns due to ongoing legal investigations.

Such suspiciously large donations might also indicate income tax fraud, or money laundering, said Mukerji. Both the campaigns had a “Milaap Guarantee" tag, which is meant to ensure an extra layer of scrutiny, much like “Ketto Verified". Clearly, the checks aren’t enough to keep scammers in check.

Elsewhere in Mint

M.V. Rajeev Gowda argues why India should not mirror the EU’s approach to regulation of digital markets. Rahul Ahluwalia says the Mission 1 Trillion can transform Uttar Pradesh economy. Vidya Mahambare & Praveen Kumar write aggressive treatment by central banks doesn't mean immediate economic healing. 

 

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