The Confidence Game

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They are the masters of fraud and deception. This was going to be their most challenging heist ever, the scale of which had been unheard of in India. If successful, they stood to make a fortune and no one would be the wiser. Their target — the Aadhaar card system. Would they be able to pull it off?

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have our next assignment.”

I looked around the room, anticipating a volley of questions to hit me.

Neerav, the gadget genius of our team and the only other person who was aware of most of the plan, added, “And it’s brilliant!”

“So, what’s the deal Alex? Who’s our next target?” asked Seema, the scamster of our six-member gang.  Whether it was skimming the ATM cards of unsuspecting customers or siphoning off money from the accounts of the rich and the famous, Seema had done it all by the age of twenty-seven.

“Not who. It’s what.” I opened my laptop and projected the presentation I had put together for my clandestine audience.

The word ‘AADHAAR’ was boldly splashed across the blank wall that served as my canvas.  I provided a bird’s eye view of the entire operation.  I then addressed Theodore, who was our in-house hacker, “Theo, you need to travel to Delhi next week and visit the UIDAI[1] offices.  You will present yourself as an officer of NPCI[2] and provide proof of misuse of the Aadhaar card information.  Your fake ID, disguise, credentials, tickets, and a set of forged Aadhaar documents are in this envelope. You have to gain access to the database that contains the Aadhaar card details, which is located in a secure server room within the UIDAI office.  And only the head of security, Aryan Sinha, has access to this room.  Neerav, do you want to pitch in here?”

Neerav placed a black bag on the table, next to my laptop.  “Okay Theo, so our plan is going to work only if you scan the biometric information off Aryan Sinha.”  He took out a pair of innocuous-looking eyeglasses from the bag and pointed to the upper left and right corners of the frame.  “These are miniature retina scanners that will scan the eyes of anybody who is directly facing you.  To initiate the scan, you need to gently press this button located at the center of the frame.  To Aryan, it would seem like you are just adjusting your glasses.  After you press the button, maintain eye contact with him for at least ten seconds.  To stop the scan, just press the button again.”

Neerav then extracted a thick plastic folder.  “Before handing over the proof to Aryan, place all the documents in this folder.  When Aryan takes the folder in his hands, a fingerprint scanner will get activated as soon as you say the words ‘Check the data Mr. Sinha,’ and his fingerprint images will be transmitted to the transcoder within this pen that you will be carrying in your pocket.”

I took out the blueprints of the UIDAI office plan and placed it on the table between Neerav and Theo. They both leaned in to study the building layout.

“Neerav will accompany you to Delhi.  After you hand over Sinha’s biometric details to Neerav, he will create contact lenses with Sinha’s retina pattern as well as fingerprint masks that you will use to gain access to the server room that is located here.”  I pointed to a section that was highlighted in red.  “Neerav has already put together an entry and exit strategy for this part of the operation.  All you need to do is hack into the database and make a copy of the 900 million-odd Aaadhar card holders.  Questions, Theo?”

Theo looked around the room, and then fixed me with an inquisitive stare, “How much do we stand to make from this operation?”

“At least 6 crores.  Which means around 1 crore for each of us.”

I heard a collective gasp go around the room.

“And when do the rest of us help with this operation?”  Prakash, our security and logistics coordinator, spoke for the first time.

“All of us have to coordinate during the final leg of this operation, which will be at the NPCI office in Mumbai.  For now Prakash, I want you to remain at Hyderabad and coordinate operations from here.  If anything goes wrong, inform everybody to follow the disengage protocol.”

I then addressed Seema, “Tomorrow, you and I will need to travel to Mumbai to set things up at NPCI.  I will walk you through the plan tonight.”

I heard a few guffaws in the background the minute those words escaped my mouth.  Raising my hands in supplication, I said, “Ok guys, give it a break.  Tonight, it’s all about work, no pleasure.”

Rana, the explosives expert of our gang, butted in, “Seema knows that I am always there for her.  In case she doesn’t get enough pleasure from you, Alex!”

I playfully punched Rana, “Seema can do much better than you, saale!”

I then added, “Rana, you may need to create a minor distraction during our getaway on the day of the hit, if things don’t go according to plan. I will brief you on this later.”

“I can come tonight, you know.  You, Seema, and I can discuss all the plans in detail!”  Rana grinned knowingly, and winked at Seema, who by now seemed annoyed at all the subtle and not-so-subtle innuendos.

“Oh, shut it Rana!  And the rest of you too!”  Seema had lost her patience.  “Can we all just focus on what we need to do for this job?”

I closed my laptop and asked once again, “Any more questions?”  When there was no response, I said, “Alright then. All the best team. We will meet again in Mumbai in exactly 10 days.”

                                                                                          ************

The next evening, Seema and I checked into a hotel in Mumbai, which was just two kilometers away from our target, the offices of the NPCI.  Seema immediately set up her laptop to hack into the firewall network that guarded NPCI.  During our initial survey and planning, Neerav and I had managed to find a loophole in the firewall security that NPCI deployed, which Seema was now leveraging.  While she worked on the laptop, I put on my disguise and purposefully marched towards The Capital, where the NPCI offices were headquartered on the 10th floor.  Building and floor access was controlled through swipe card entries.  The NPCI offices had their own access-controlled security system.  I walked through the main doors of the impressively-built modern structure that was The Capital, and headed straight to the elevator lobby.

“Let’s see if paying that sinful amount of money was worth it,” I thought to myself as I took out the bogus access card with my photo ID printed on it.  I hesitated for a second before swiping my card on the card reader system.  A green beam on the reader panel accompanied by a pleasant beep announced that my card had been validated.  I selected the 10th floor from the list of floors printed on the panel.  An automated female voice from the reader welcomed me, “Welcome Arjun Khanna.  Proceed to Elevator 5.”

I called up Seema, “Babe, I am at the elevator lobby.  Are you in yet?”

“Yes, just got in.  I will shut down the cameras in 3 minutes.  Remember, the system will automatically bring them back up within 15 minutes of shutdown.”

After exiting the elevator, I headed to the NPCI reception, where a pretty, 20-something receptionist welcomed me with a pleasant smile.

“I am Khanna from building maintenance,” I said, showing her my ID card.  “There is a pipe burst on the 11th floor, and I need to check the plumbing in your restrooms immediately.  There is a chance of water leakage in your office.”

“Oh!  We usually get a notification when somebody from building maintenance is coming to our floor.”

“Yes, I know madam.  But this is an emergency.  You don’t want to be responsible for flooding the office, right?”

The receptionist lost her attitude when she thought about the consequences.  “Please come with me.”

I observed the layout of the office as I walked behind her, towards the restrooms.

“How long will you take Khannaji?”

I looked at my watch. It was 5:40 PM. “If there is no breach, maybe just 10 to 15 minutes.  Otherwise, it may take an hour.”

“Ok.  After you are done, please come back straight to the reception, and I will let you out.”

I nodded and proceeded into the men’s restroom. I first crouched and checked to see if any cubicle was occupied, and cursed under my breath.  The middle cubicle had a pair of legs, with trousers gathered around the ankles.  My watch indicated that I was already down by 5 minutes. 

I knocked on the cubicle door, and heard a startled grunt.  “Sorry sir, I have to do some maintenance work here.  Can you please hurry up, if you don’t mind?”

The occupant complained about the lack of privacy as he pressed the flush.  I stood back as a middle-aged man with an annoyed expression emerged from the cubicle.

“Very sorry sir.  It’s an emergency.”

The man did not respond.  He proceeded slowly to the wash basin to wash his hands.

I observed him carefully as he walked to the door.  I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch.  I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. "Ten, nine, eight, seven..."

As soon as he left, I put the ‘Cleaning in Progress’ sign and locked the door from inside.  I took out the gadget that Neerav and Rana had designed that would emit smoke on remote activation, and placed it on the wall near the last cubicle, next to a smoke-detecting sensor.  I checked my watch. Just two more minutes until the cameras were turned back on.  Walking quickly back to the reception area, I signaled to the receptionist.

“All good?” asked the receptionist.

“Yes madam.  Thank you for cooperating.”

I hurriedly exited the building.

                                                                                 ************

I was once again in Mumbai, 9 days later.  We had congregated at the terrace of Hotel Midland, which was just around 3 kilometers from The Capital.  Each of us had traveled to Mumbai under disguise and on different flights. 

“We will make the hit tonight because the office and roads will be relatively empty on a Sunday.” 

Later in the evening at 8 PM, Prakash, Rana, Theo, and I sat in our stolen vehicle, waiting for Neerav to set things in motion.  Seema was at the hotel, once again breaking through the firewall and office security. Neerav was sitting inside one of the restaurants at The Capital, waiting for the right time to remote activate the smoke emitter. 

At exactly 8:15 PM, mayhem broke out on the 10th floor of The Capital. 

We waited for five minutes before turning on the siren.  Prakash steered the fire engine through the sparse traffic.  Within 10 minutes, we were at The Capital.  While Prakash kept the engine running, Theo, Rana, and I ran out of the vehicle disguised as firemen.  We rushed into the building, as many panic-stricken occupants ran towards the exit.  Neerav was already waiting at the service elevator for us.   

When we reached the 10th floor, we found it completely empty.  We quickly went through the unlocked doors.  Neerav verified that the cameras had been shut down, and that we could access the server room.  Rana went to the restroom to turn off and remove the smoke-emitting device.  Theo was already inside the server room, hacking away through multiple layers of security.  I took out my laptop that now contained the data that Theo had stolen from UIDAI.  I walked into the server room and connected my laptop to the database that contained the payment information, which included the bank account details and other secure information of millions of Aadhaar customers. 

“I’m through Alex.  Let’s sync up the data and code.”  Theo typed in some commands on the console and my laptop screen lit up as the financial data started downloading.

We waited with baited breath as the progress bar crawled slowly towards 100% download status.

“It’s done. Let’s get out of here.”  Theo, Rana, and I retraced our steps back to place where Prakash was waiting, and we all got in and drove off into the dark alleys of the shimmering city that was Mumbai.

                                                                             ***********

Five days later, I was waiting nervously in an elaborate reception area.

“Mr. Alex Thomas, he will see you now,” said the receptionist very sternly.

I walked through the finely handcrafted doors that led into a spacious and tastefully decorated office.  “Good afternoon, Mr. Prime Minister.”

He looked up from the notes he was writing on his desk, and smiled, “Mr. Alex Thomas!  So, what do you have for me?”

I handed him the report.  “Sir, the Aadhaar card payment system is not 100% secure.  I have listed out my recommendations for improving the security.”

The Prime Minister opened the file and started reading its contents.  When he was done, he looked up and said, “Very impressive Mr. Thomas.  It must be a different experience for you and your gang to be on the right side of the law, for a change.  Correct?”

Five months ago, our entire team had walked into a trap set up by the CBI.  When news of our escapades spread, it caught the Prime Minister’s attention, and he decided to give us a chance to help the government fix loopholes across various security systems.  That was the deal for us to avoid going to prison.

I smile enigmatically, “Of course sir.  I hope we can continue to help the government this way.”

The Prime Minister handed me a check for 6 lakhs.  “As agreed, to cover your expenses, and a little something extra.”  I nodded in acknowledgment, and walked out with the check.

                                                                            ************

The team looked at me with consternation and disappointment when I showed them the amount on the check.

Rana could not contain himself, “What the fuck, Alex! You told us 6 crores, not 6 lakhs!”

“I never said that the government was going to pay us 6 crores, did I?”

Rana, Prakash, Theo, and Neerav had confusion written all over their faces.

Seema stepped in, “Let me explain. When Theo used my algorithm to hack the NPCI code, it modified the software that enables payments. So now, every time the government sends subsidies to the bank account of an Aadhaar account holder, 10 paise will be deducted from that amount and rerouted to an untraceable bank account in the Cayman Islands.  Each month, the Aadhaar card payment system processes around 60 crore transactions.  Which means…”

Seema paused for her words have their impact.

The collective intake of air conveyed the rest. 

I added with a grin, “And I just received confirmation from the PMO that our next assignment is to help track down black money account holders.”

 

[1] UIDAI or Unique Identification Authority of India is the agency that issues Aadhaar cards to Indian citizens.

[2] NPCI or National Payments Corporation of India manages all retail payment systems in the country, including payments to Aadhaar card holders.

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