A 24-year-old woman planning to pursue her masters abroad has been duped of Rs 2.5 lakh by an education consultancy firm which assured to prepare the requisite documents and facilitate her admission to a college in Italy.
The woman, identified as Smruti Khanduala, works for a software company in Mumbai. She lodged a complaint against the consultancy firm, based in Pune’s Viman Nagar area, at Vimantal police station on February 3, based on which police registered an FIR against four office-bearers of the firm under relevant sections of the IPC pertaining to cheating, forgery and counterfeiting.
The Pune City police arrested two people associated with firm and launched a probe into the suspected racket as they believe that the firm has cheated a large number of aspirants in the same manner.
It all began in December 2022 when Khanduala approached the firm, which informed her that as per her finances, it would be best for her to pursue a masters degree in Italy as the country provides a 100 percent scholarship which covers tuition fees, rent and food expenses. As the process began, between February and June 2023, she paid Rs 1.5 lakh to the firm as service charge.
“They first charged Rs 50,000 for my offer letter from the university, another Rs 50,000 for scholarship documents and another Rs 50,000 just to provide a Visa checklist. I asked them if it is necessary for me to complete my Visa application through them, to which they said if I don’t, they won’t help me if any problem arises later,” said Khanduala.
She received an offer letter for a course in International marketing and business management but did not get her scholarship letter or visa. After shelling out Rs 1.5 lakh, the consultancy told Khanduala that though the university will provide scholarship, her application won’t come through if she did not have Rs 10 to 15 lakhs in her bank account. She proposed to take a loan for the same.
“They told me they have tie-ups with all the banks across India, which can provide financial assistance. They told me not to worry and assured to take care of the procedure,” said Khanduala. She made a fourth payment of Rs 50,000 for third-party service.
As the appointment for her Visa interview approached in July 2023, she asked for the bank documents the consultancy was completing on her behalf but the firm didn’t provide anything. They asked her to reschedule her Visa appointment from July to September, then from September to October 30, alleged Khanduala.
“My mother got angry with these repeated delays and warned the consultancy to finish the procedure 15 days prior to the Visa appointment scheduled for October 30. Before October 30, I went to collect my documents and noticed a lot of spelling mistakes among other things. I told them to fix it immediately,” said Khanduala.
One day, Khanduala alleged, when she visited the office of the firm, the person in the office told her he was going to the bank. However, he went into one of the cabins in the office. “The room I was sitting in had a screen which showed CCTV footage of all cabins. I saw him take a stamp from a drawer and stamp all my documents himself. When I asked him about it, he handed me the documents and asked me to submit them for my Visa process. He told me to do as directed or lose all the money I had given so far,” she said.
Khanduala said she appeared for her Visa interview and submitted the documents prepared by the consultancy. Three months later in January, she received a letter stating that her Visa had been rejected due to ‘doubtful’ financial documents. The embassy asked her to re-submit the requisite documents on February 2.
On January 31, Khanduala met officials of the crime branch of the Pune City police. On a call at the time, the consultancy asked her to forge fake documents and to show a balance of Rs 13 lakhs, instead of Rs 3,000, in her mother’s bank account.
On February 2, Khanduala, accompanied by a police officer who posed as a decoy student, went to the firm’s office, where she was taken to a cabin and asked to forge signatures as a bank manager.
“They made me do 20-30 signatures on blank papers and got angry because they didn’t all look the same. One of them got very angry and started signing the documents herself. I texted the police and they were caught red-handed,” she said.
An officer from Vimantal police station said, “We have booked four office-bearers of the firm that claims to be a consultancy for admissions abroad. We have arrested two of them. We have reasons to believe that a large number of people may have been cheated in the same manner. Investigation is underway.”
Khanduala said the firm does third-party procedure for all students, most of whom don’t know what is being done in their name. “Another catch is they refuse to provide scholarship documents to students until we send a positive testimonial video saying they are really nice and help us a lot.”
The Instagram page of the consultancy is full of such testimonial videos, with names of the students erased and comments section turned off. The Indian Express tried to contact the consultancy but the number provided by them does not work.