On a late February evening after work, Rahul Mehta (name changed), a 27-year-old bachelor in Delhi, was settling into his favourite bedtime routine — swiping left and right on a dating app, looking for a potential mate. Suddenly, a message popped up: ‘Hi, I’m Areej. Let’s chat’. “I had a match and she was beautiful. Dark-haired, fair-skinned, light-eyed…and from Morocco,” recalls Rahul.
Excited at the possibility of moving his digital dating life into the real world, he went from matching on Tinder to chatting on WhatsApp to video-calling each other on Facebook within a few days.
“Take off your T-shirt,” she wrote to Rahul one evening. Aroused by the mysterious woman, he did as told. The next thing he knew, Rahul had stripped and was climaxing in front of the camera. In a few minutes, another message popped up, this time with an online link to a video recording of his act and a terrifying voice message. “You have been fooled. I’m a man, not a woman, and if you do not send me $2000, I will share the video with your friends and family,” it said.
Crippled by fear and shame, the software engineer pleaded with his blackmailer. “I told him I had no money and managed to bring the figure down to $20. After he received the money transfer, I blocked him on my phone.” A second ransom demand for $100 followed but this time, Rahul turned to law enforcement agencies. “I haven’t heard from him ever since.”
IF YOU FALL PREY TO SEXTORTION: 1. Do not delete any evidence - chats, emails, images, audio or video recordings
2. Do not give in to the extortionist’s demands
3. Take a close family member or friend into confidence
4. Report to the local police station or cyber crime cell and insist on an FIR
5. If mentally disturbed, seek expert counselling
People have always been fools for love and lust. But the sweeping reach and possibilities of the internet have intensified risks and made those seeking companionship vulnerable to a 21st-century crime called ‘sextortion’ or sexual extortion.
Mentally and financially damaging, this form of cyber-blackmail is becoming more common in India. In Pune recently, a 28-year-old newly married man in Pune opened an email from an unknown sender one morning to find sexually explicit photos and videos of himself from a past online encounter. The mail demanded a ransom of a lakh to avoid disclosure. “Scared of how it might destroy his marriage, he came to me and the police. We managed to track the IP address. It turned out to be a man and he was arrested,” says Ritesh Bhatia, a Mumbai-based cybercrime investigator who has witnessed a spike in sextortion cases in the past one year.
Out of 15 victims he dealt with, ten were men. Earlier this year, a 65-year-old man from Nashik got ripped off by Rs 8.32 lakh by his sexting partner. Intervention by cops helped seize the scammer’s account.
A pan-India survey by Microsoft last year revealed how widespread the problem is. Of the teens (aged 13-17) and adults (18-74) who were asked about their encounters with 17 different online risks across four categories — behavioural, reputational, sexual, and intrusive — 77% Indians reported their concerns on unwanted sexual solicitation, sexting, revenge porn, or sextortion.
Curiously, the report revealed that more males in India had reported risks across the categories at 64%. This may be because more women (61%) had tightened their privacy controls compared to males (50%) after experiencing online risk. “Males in India are more confident about managing incivility, and, therefore experience more personal risks,” stated the report.
Formal arrests in sextortion cases are still a rarity. The nature of the offence compels most victims to stay anonymous, out of fear, shame and self-blame. “The anonymity that the Internet offers can cloud judgment and Indian men tend to indulge in sexual fantasies online more freely than women. When trapped in a cyber scam, they fear for their reputation and avoid the police,” says Balsing Rajput, SP cyber, Maharashtra. “The victim should understand that even though they consented to getting clicked or sent pictures, they still have a right to justice,” he says.
The predators hiding behind the photograph or fake webcam video of an attractive woman are almost always men too. The scammer could be an old flame, a neighbour or a honey trap most likely in the Philippines or Nigeria. “Although the easiest way to trace them is through the servers, most scammers use virtual private networks and ask for money in bitcoin and overseas accounts that makes it challenging for us,” says Rajput.
Extortion by means of sexual harassment was the second most popular method after phishing, reveals Rajput, a PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who is studying cyber economic crimes in India between 2002 and 2016.
“Cyber economic crime is borderless and no single agency controls the Internet. Law enforcement agencies face a major problem in collecting information from foreign countries,” he says.
But the upside is that matters of cybercrime and justice are being taken seriously by law enforcers and social media. “Victims and service-providers need to come forward to help us trace and bust such syndicates,” he adds.