Scammers claiming to be Indian government officials are demanding money from the families of seafarers to free them from custody for fictional crimes.

The fraudsters contact the relatives via phone, email and WhatsApp to falsely claim that seafarers have been involved in crimes at sea including drug smuggling, rape and murder, and demand money to help them.

“Numerous cases have come to light,” said the country’s maritime administration, the Directorate General of Shipping. “These claims are generally false and are designed to deceive and exploit unsuspecting family members.”

The scammers have pretended to be associates on board the ships, from law enforcement bodies or from the shipping ministry “and have demanded money for their release or assistance”.

An advisory issued by the directorate general urges families to check first with the crewing agency or shipowner and not to send any money.

India is the fifth-largest supplier of seafarers to the global fleet with more than 113,000 in 2021, according to the most recent Seafarer Workforce Report produced by shipowner groups Bimco and the International Chamber of Shipping.

Only the Philippines, Russia, Indonesia and China supply more.

Studies suggest that Indian seafarers are already at particular risk from other workplace scams including paying illegal recruitment fees to secure work.

One Indian seafarer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told researchers for the Institute for Human Rights & Business and the Sustainable Shipping Initiative that the practice is rife.

“In India, there are no jobs for seafarers who don’t give a bribe — only money or help from relatives will get you on board,” one respondent said.