When a Chandigarh-based travel agent called Air India’s customer service center in February last year for clarification on a Kathmandu flight he was about to book for a passenger, he unwittingly became part of a racket that resulted in losses of over Rs 50 lakh for him and several others like him. The operation, which involved booking Air India tickets through a two-decade-old BPO company, IGT Solutions, without making payments to the airline, went smoothly until as the second wave of Covid hit the country, after which it began to crumble and fall apart at the seams.
Last February, the agent called a registered Air India customer support number in Gurgaon to seek clarification on the name pattern of the tickets he was booking for a flight to Kathmandu. Air India’s call centre, which is managed by IGT Solutions, assured that they would receive a call back from one of their support executives. Soon, he got a call from someone claiming to be an Air India representative, helping him solve his problem.
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Shortly after, he received a call again from the same representative, but this time with an offer. “The man pretended to be from Air India and asked me how much I had paid for the ticket to Kathmandu. When I told him the amount, he offered me the same ticket with a significant discount of Rs 10,000 price quoted,” the agent said. “I checked with my friends here who are senior travel agents and they advised me to take the offer but only do the payment only after the passenger has traveled with said ticket,” he added.
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The alleged Air India representative agreed to his terms of payment and issued him a ticket. The agent’s client traveled to Kathmandu with no hassle and he paid the money to this person. “For the next 15 days, we followed this payment model only after the trip was completed…since the person never failed, I decided to make the payments at the time of booking,” said the agent, adding that his other colleagues had also started booking through this person.
This all went like clockwork until India was hit by a deadly wave of Covid in May 2021 which impacted people’s travel plans and they started canceling tickets . Some of the agent’s clients have canceled tickets to destinations like Canada, expecting a refund. But he never received this reimbursement to pass it on to his customers. Other travel agents have also found themselves caught in this trap. “As of today, refunds of around 60 tickets (mostly for flights to Canada) totaling Rs 52 lakh are due… and I’m just an agent – there are several more,” he said. -he declares.
Simultaneously, Air India became aware of an accounting discrepancy regarding the amount it expected to receive from IGT Solutions for the tickets which it claimed had been issued by the BPO company on behalf of the airline. “Legitimate tickets were issued but the airline did not receive payments for these bookings. Typically, these discrepancies occur on an ongoing basis and are settled within days, weeks or months. But when this particular mismatch has lasted any longer, we have approached IGT Solutions and asked them to look into it,” an Air India executive told The Indian Express. He declined to share the total amount the airline is to receive under the tickets. .
IGT Solutions, on the other hand, filed a First Information Report (FIR) at the Gurgaon Cybercrime Police Station last month against unidentified persons, where it stated that “several tickets were issued through the Air India without any payment being received by the airline, which has been notified by Air India to IGT”.
“The company also reviewed reservations made using IGT employee logins and passwords when those employees were not even authorized or trained to issue tickets and in rare cases , were not in the shift at the time the fraudulent tickets were made,” read the FIR dated May 7, which was reviewed by The Indian Express.
In the FIR, IGT Solutions said that after the discrepancy was discovered, it provided certain IP addresses to Air India from which it provides call center services, so that the airline could restrict the access to all other IP addresses. “As this control has not been put in place, to our shock, we find that few / possibly many tickets have been issued without any payment,” reads the complaint filed by the senior director of the IGT Solutions Fraud Investigations, Manmeet Bakshi.
Several messages sent to Bakshi seeking comment on this story did not elicit a response. IGT Solutions did not respond to a detailed set of queries sent by this newspaper. IGT Solutions, was formerly InterGlobe Technologies when it was owned by Rahul Bhatia – the billionaire developer of low-cost airline IndiGo. The call center company was acquired in 2019 by AION Capital – a joint venture between global PE fund Apollo Global Management and ICICI Ventures – in 2019 for $230 million. AION Capital is reportedly likely to sell 85% of its stake in IGT Solutions to private equity firm Baring PE Asia for more than $800 million.
Responding to questions by email, an Air India spokesman denied the involvement of its employees in the fraudulent ticket bookings. “We are aware, however, that M/s IGT, who handles Air India’s contact centre, filed an FIR against unknown persons and not against an Air India employee. A discrepancy was observed and IGT followed its procedure on this issue,” the spokesperson said. In a follow-up question on the circumstances under which the alleged fraudster could have accessed the agent’s details, the spokesperson said: ‘Air India has always had zero tolerance for any kind of misconduct or irregularity in any area of its business…we have made it abundantly clear that Air India is in no way subject to the FIR, which you mentioned, and is not aware of any allegation of involvement of its own staff in the case”.
After months without receiving their money, the agent and others traveled to Delhi in July last year to confront the suspected fraudster. “He promised to refund the money. But it is still due. He has not been home since July last year. My only hope rests with the police investigation,” he said.