In India, People Being Fake-Killed For Insurance Payouts

In India, scams come in many flavors, varying over time and by region. Just as the greater Delhi area became notorious for job scams and Jharkhand emerged as the hub for phishing calls, Assam took to life insurance fraud.

In India, People Being Fake-Killed For Insurance Payouts

Amina Parbin's estranged husband fraudulently filed a claim for an insurance policy on her life.

Amina Parbin was alone, sweeping the floor of her parents' home, when a man arrived on a January day in 2017 with a file in his hands. He introduced himself as a life insurance investigator and began pulling out papers. A payout claim. A passport photo. A death certificate-her death certificate. "Did you know Amina?" he asked.

"I am Amina," she responded, and "I am, in fact, alive."

It took seemingly Amina Parbin's entire family-with her brothers and uncles rushing over from their farms and shops-to prove to the investigator that she was the victim of some kind of fraud. They eventually persuaded him to turn over the paperwork he'd brought. And that's how Parbin learned that a claim had been filed for an insurance policy on her life, one she never even knew existed. The claimant: her estranged husband.

Life insurance fraud is just one of the countless scams that have rippled through the district of Barpeta in northeast India. Two years ago thousands of people began bribing community banks to add their names to a cash aid program meant for farmers. It was a scholarship scandal before that. A Ponzi scheme made a killing before that. In this corner of the state of Assam, where Amina Parbin and her family live, scam culture is so ingrained that some people take pride in the ingenuity of it all, joking about "brainpower." Occasionally, though, they make subtle reference to what's driving the scams: crushing poverty, government neglect, political oppression. Versions of this are unfolding all over India, where historically marginalized people are striking back at the state in the only ways available to them.

Insurance fraud is certainly not limited to Assam, or India. In the US, scammers cost nonhealth insurers upwards of $40 billion a year. In the UK, insurers uncovered 107,000 fraudulent claims worth almost $1.3 billion in 2019. But the way that India's life insurance is designed makes it an especially rich target.

India offers its citizens a basic life insurance policy that's rare for any government to provide. It costs the equivalent of about $4 a year and pays out roughly $2,600 when a policyholder dies, easily enough to cover two years of wages for a typical worker. In 2000 the government opened the system to private insurers, who crowded in and began to cut corners. Lacking even the most basic of checks and balances, the industry lost an estimated $28 billion to scams in the seven years through 2012, according to Deloitte.

In India, scams come in many flavors, varying over time and by region. Just as the greater Delhi area became notorious for job scams and Jharkhand emerged as the hub for phishing calls, Assam took to life insurance fraud. And arguably nowhere in Assam have investigators seen more of this type of fraud than in the district of Barpeta.

There, few if any residents have birth certificates, and other basic documents have become easy to forge. Husbands told insurers that their living wives were dead. Wives said their long-dead husbands had recently died anew. Siblings made up extra siblings who could fake-die as painlessly as they were fake-born. And in many cases, the scams were perpetrated by people who had no relation to the allegedly dead at all.

Everyone in this rural but rapidly modernizing part of India seems to know someone with a story like Amina Parbin's. Life insurance scams began spreading across the district in the 2010s-just as strips of hotels, shopping centers, and private colleges were expanding. The commercialization did little for those who live there. They still struggle to gain access to health care, quality education, and good-paying jobs, making their villages rich grounds for easy-money cons.

The appeal of a quick payout was too difficult to resist, says Ismail Hussain, who lives in a village in Barpeta. Sitting in his vine-covered backyard, wedged between chickens and goats, Ismail Hussain is vague about his source of income, but takes great pride in owning a cemented house, a car, and his own fishpond.

An insurance scam came to him in 2011, Ismail Hussain says, when he was approached by a childhood friend in the insurance business. He asked Ismail Hussain to take out a life insurance policy so he could meet his sales quota.

When Ismail Hussain hesitated, the friend suggested he take out one on an imaginary relative instead. They came up with a phony brother, forged birth records, and bribed the local high school headmaster to certify that his brother had graduated in 2004. He paid $192 to buy a $32,000 policy from Aviva Life Insurance Co., naming himself as the beneficiary.

Ismail Hussain "killed off" his on-paper brother with a phony death certificate on Sept. 30, 2012, and filed a claim five years later. He says he had meant to file it sooner, but he had misplaced the policy documents.

Ismail Hussain's childhood friend, Manik Ali, had stumbled into the insurance fraud business a few years earlier. He'd been working as a claims investigator and making a lot of visits to Nagaon, in central Assam. "That's where I got the idea," he says. Policies were being bought there in the name of terminally ill patients, people who had died, and people who didn't exist. "The agents used to manage the police and the hospital authorities," Manik Ali says. A system took shape in Barpeta, 200 kilometers west, where unemployed and underemployed men became insurance agents and began to scout for people to fake-kill. He eased right in.

In 2014 he found what seemed like a straightforward target. Twenty-five-year-old electrician Nowab Ali (no relation) was fixing a broken power line on April 14 when he suffered an electrical shock and fell to the ground. Onlookers rushed him to a nearby hospital, but doctors couldn't save him. According to an inquest form, he was wearing a "sky colour" shirt and yellow undershirt. His autopsy lists burn injuries on his hands and a wound in the temporal area of his scalp. Cause of death: ventricular fibrillation caused by electrocution. He was buried at his family's plot, in an unmarked grave next to his father's.

Not long after, says Mafida Khatoon, Nowab Ali's widow, four men showed up at her door. It was Ismail Hussain, his friend Manik Ali, and two other men. They asked for her husband's life insurance documents and told her they knew of a way she could double her payout. Without asking whether their methods were legal, she gave them her voter identification card, a receipt of the premium her husband had last paid for his life insurance policy, and her signature on some blank sheets of paper. Using this, the men impersonated Nowab and bought six more policies from five different insurers.

For the scammers to collect, Nowab Ali had to die again. Four months after his death, another man was admitted under the same name at the same hospital. This time around, the inquest form lists him as wearing a white undershirt.

The cause of death on this man's autopsy: a coma from three head injuries. Manik Ali signed the man's inquest form, as did the real Nowab's brother-in-law, Ekabbar Ali. Manik Ali's own doctor, Shahidul Islam, signed a death certificate, despite not having been on duty that day.

From August 2014 to September 2017, an account in the name of Nowab Ali's widow received life insurance payouts totaling roughly $21,600. About $19,000 of that was routed to various partners in the scam throughout Barpeta, according to bank and other records obtained as part of a police investigation. Nowab's widow says the account was opened without her knowledge, and she ultimately received about $2,558.

A year after the payouts, police started arresting the co-conspirators. Their investigation began with a tip from an insurance agent that prompted Jitul Deka, then an activist fighting corruption, to look into Nowab Ali's death. Armed with postmortem reports and other questionable documents, he appealed to the Gauhati High Court for help, which prompted an investigation.

Hussain, Manik Ali, and the two other men who opened policies in Nowab Ali's name were among those arrested. So was Nowab's widow, for going along with the scheme, and the doctor, Islam, who signed the phony death certificate. Islam would eventually admit to taking bribes. Police say Manik Ali, Hussain, and the others confessed to being involved in several scams. (Manik Ali denies he was involved in Nowab Ali's claim. Hussain says the scam involving his fake brother was the only one he pulled. And Nowab Ali's widow says she only learned her information was used for fraud when the police showed up to arrest her.) They would go on to become the symbols of a broader crackdown in the region that exposed entire networks of relatives, village officials, doctors, insurance agents, brokers, bankers, postal workers, and police officials who all worked in tandem to defraud insurers.

No one ever claimed the second body of "Nowab Ali," which the police suspect the coroner on duty, Upendra Nath Talukdar, helped to procure. Talukdar, an inspector with the Assam Police, was manning the police post at the hospital when both Nowab Alis were admitted and was thus responsible for their postmortems. Shortly after police began investigating the case, Talukdar was found dead of a gunshot wound, an apparent suicide. Exactly whose body he might have used remains a mystery.

Last year, India's life insurance industry sold nearly 30 million policies. The largest of the insurers by far is the government-run Life Insurance Corporation of India, known as LIC. It controls close to two-thirds of the market, has roughly $500 billion in assets, and serves more than 250 million policyholders.

For years, LIC exclusively ran India's life insurance system with little oversight. It has never commissioned external investigators to look over potentially fraudulent claims. When the government opened the market to private insurance companies in 2000, those companies didn't hire verification agents right away, one executive recalls. The system ran largely on trust-between companies and customers, customers and agents, and agents and companies.

It didn't take long for India's privatized insurance industry to turn cutthroat. Agents, facing ever-tougher targets for underwriting policies, resorted to shortcuts. They would ignore red flags such as age or income profile. They would shrug off medical conditions. And if they got caught and were fired by one company, they joined another.

Insurers thought the extensive police investigations, combined with Covid-19 lockdowns, would put an end to the schemes. Fraud cases noticeably declined. Local officials fielded fewer complaints. Scammers seemed to have gone dormant, emboldening Samiran Baishya, an investigator with the Assam Police, to say he is "99.9% sure that there are no cases" in the main district of Barpeta.

The villagers of Barpeta say that not only are the scammers back, but they're smarter than ever. "In the streets, we run into people who are hale and hearty"-and yet who, according to official paperwork, are dead, says Mainul Haque, an uncle of Parbin's.

Covid made the scam easier. The virus has killed hundreds of thousands of people in India, which has one of the highest mortality rates in the world. Death claims shot up across the life insurance industry. One insurer in India saw its death claims double in 2021 alone. The scale of the tragedy created another opening for scammers. State governments were flooded with claims after the Supreme Court ordered them to pay about $639 to each bereaved family. At least some have already proven to be fake. In March the court expressed concern about reports of doctors issuing phony death certificates in exchange for bribes.

In June 2021, Deepika Bhalla, who lives in a city bordering Delhi, answered her door to find two insurance investigators. They had come to verify a claim she had purportedly filed after her husband's recent death. Bhalla was stunned. Her husband had just left for work that morning, alive and well.

A fake death certificate had apparently been procured from a government office that registers births and deaths, and a fake bank account had been created in her name. It was all done by people neither of them knew.

The police suspect that an organized gang was behind Bhalla's claim. "It begins with data theft," says Mayur Joshi, a forensic investigator. The fraudsters buy stolen data of existing policyholders. They impersonate them to open bank accounts, fabricate death certificates, and file claims. Their operations run like assembly lines. The impact on the subject of a bogus claim can be devastating. Those dead on paper risk losing welfare benefits. They could even lose voting rights.

Since Deepika Bhalla's case, similar scams have been reported from seven other districts around Delhi. "It is happening everywhere," Joshi says.

Today, some insurance firms are reluctant to sell policies in Barpeta. Many have developed internal "blacklists" of places where they refuse to do business. They trade notes on problematic areas. And based on complaints, they regularly ban agents, fire employees, and take customers to court.

They're also turning increasingly to artificial intelligence to catch scammers. Claims are run through software that can, among other things, detect a forged document or a suspicious timeline. Internal risk analysis teams constantly run random checks.

The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India is weighing a proposal that would include insurance fraud cases on people's credit profiles, possibly affecting their access to loans and credit cards.

Their efforts have not yet deterred the scammers around Barpeta. Throughout the region, old graves are suddenly being cleaned up and polished so they appear new, says Haque, Parbin's uncle.

Amina Parbin has moved on. After the insurance investigator found her alive, her husband's claim was denied. A committee of village elders ordered him to apologize and pay her $2,600. The couple divorced. She has since remarried.

Village officials eventually learned that her husband had cashed in policies on more people-a lot more. "He must have done at least 500" policies, says Haque, who was then president of the village council.

Amina Parbin's husband-Sapur Ali-admits that he fraudulently filed for his now-ex-wife's life insurance, but he maintains that the rest of the claims he filed were real. "Those people," he says, "genuinely died."

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)