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Sunday, April 14, 2024

In the Fight Against Scams, ‘Cyber Ambassadors’ Enter the Chat

Preetika, a 15-year-old student from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, has stopped playing her favorite mobile game, Free Fire, because of what can happen when she does. 

In October, while she was tapping on her smartphone playing this game after school, a text message popped up asking her to share bank information in order to purchase more “diamonds” on the app. The diamonds are used to buy add-ons within the game, such as weapons, skins, and more. Unaware that this could be a potential scam, Preetika clicked on the link, shared her mother’s bank details—then realized that 10,000 rupees ($120) were instantly debited from the account. (WIRED is using only the first names of the minors quoted in this story to protect their privacy.) 

“I didn’t tell anyone, but since it was my mother’s account, she got a message,” says Preetika. “I lost all that money suddenly; it was very scary.”

Fortunately, one of Preetika’s friends from her class, Rajeshwari, came to her rescue, helping her understand what could have potentially happened and directing her to the authorities who helped them retrieve the money. Rajeshwari is one among thousands of students from the south Indian state of Telangana who are being trained to become “cyber ambassadors” in the region. 

Telangana, a state that has been infamous for deploying invasive technology for surveillance purposes across Hyderabad, its capital city, is now trying to create awareness around digital safety and hygiene for the betterment of its citizens. With the Covid pandemic came a rise in online scams and many Indians falling prey to them. India experienced an 86 percent jump in cybercrimes with the global pandemic, according to a July 2022 study by researchers at the Central University of Kerala, in Kasargod, India. To battle this issue, the Telangana state police over the past year developed a 10-month-long curriculum to teach students how to identify and dodge potential online scams and how to handle cyberbullying and trolling. 

Part of the so-called Cyber Congress initiative started by the women safety wing of the state police department, the cyber ambassador program is meant to educate the students so that they can also help their family, friends, and neighbors stay safe on the internet. Rajeshwari, one of the newly minted cyber ambassadors, says she has been able to help some of her friends and family evade digital scams. “I have been able to create awareness amongst many people at my hostel and my village back home,” says Rajeshwari, a 10th grader. “We are also conducting programs at school even after the course is done.” 

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Over 3,000 students graduated from the first class of cyber ambassadors last year. And following the success of the first batch, the Telangana government—which is perhaps the first state in India to have come up with a novel concept like this—has started the second batch of the course with almost 10,000 students. Telangana has over 5 million students across more than 40,000 public schools.

Sailaja Vadlamudi, one of the two teachers of the program, explains that with rising cybercrime cases, and the pandemic providing more digital access to people, the government wanted to help out the most vulnerable: students in public schools. She says that the course is taught in simple, understandable language with real-life analogies for the children to grasp the concept quickly. For instance, she tells her students to treat passwords like a toothbrush: change them often and don’t share them with anyone else. 

“When we looked into statistics, we realized that there is a huge rise in cybercrime especially targeting women and children,” says Vadlamudi, who also works at SAP as senior director and chief expert of security and data privacy. “We can always give them tools, but in the end, if people have the right set of awareness, then they can become the strongest chain in this entire ecosystem of cybercrimes.”

Students who are chosen to partake in the program are also given a series of assignments that help them understand how to handle attempted scams, like phishing links or fake job postings where the teachers asked them to double-check email addresses and look for misspellings—indicators that the content is part of a swindle. 

As for the program successfully helping people avoid falling prey to online scams, Vadlamudi remembers one specific instance where a student said her father, a daily wage worker, received a call from someone pretending to be from a bank asking for the one-time password. Before the student became a cyber ambassador, her father would have perhaps shared these details. But since his daughter warned him not to do so, he knew it was a trap and refused to share the information.

Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author, says that controlling cyber scams is a difficult task, because “these scams prey on the most vulnerable and the most ignorant.” He explains that people are often reliant on third parties—typically banks and other financial institutions—to recognize scams in progress and try to intervene. 

That said, Schneier believes that the Telangana police’s approach of catching them young shows potential. “I think it's a great idea,” says Schneier, who is also an adjunct lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School. “Computer literacy generally starts with the young and moves upward, so this is a great way to leverage that natural expertise.”

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