“Hello, if you’re alone, then video-call me,” Rakesh*, 60, a businessman from Delhi, fell for the message on WhatsApp from an unsuspecting young woman in the second week of April this year.
When he responded to the request, an obscene video came up on his screen and the call was disconnected shortly. A minute later, an unknown caller threatened him to pay ₹80,000. Or else, he was told, a recorded video call showing him watching the obscene video would be shared among his family members and also on social media. He paid the amount and next, two persons impersonating as Delhi Police Crime Branch officer and YouTube official called him on WhatsApp video and demanded another ₹6.50 lakh by showing him a fake FIR.
It took him two months to file a complaint. An FIR was registered under Sections 384 (punishment for extortion), 170 (impersonating a public servant), 419 (punishment for cheating by personation), 420 (cheating and dishonesty), 120B (criminal conspiracy), 34 (common intention) of the IPC.
Rakesh was a victim of sextortion, a crime where persons extort money by threatening victims into leaking private images and videos on the Internet.
Rise in cases
A senior police officer at the Cyber Cell told The Hindu that there has been an uptick in sextortion cases and complaints have doubled during the pandemic “Before COVID-19, we would receive one-two complaints a month; now we get eight to nine,” the officer said.
However, the number of cases far exceeds the number of people who come forward to complain. Also, the number of FIRs registered falls short of the complaints filed. DCP (Intelligence Fusion and Strategic Operations) K.P.S. Malhotra said that in the last three years, 25 cases have been registered and 33 arrests made. “But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Out of 100 cases, at least 85 victims respond to the calls and 70 fall prey to the sextortion,” he said.
The modus operandi of such frauds keeps changing periodically. The victims are usually befriended on Facebook and lured into conversations with nude images on messenger chats. If the victim indulges, then a request for WhatsApp video call is sent and obscene videos are shown from a different phone, while the video call is simultaneously recorded to blackmail. And once the victim falls for the trap and pays the amount, then more money is extorted through impersonation.
In Rakesh’s case, his Facebook profile displayed a lavish lifestyle and the accused traced his digital footprint to figure out his paying capacity. Digital footprint tracing is a new worry for the police. The extortionists keep track of the social media activities of victims. “They monitor comments, likes and shared posts of their target, usually men above 40 and with stable income,” said the officer.
“The fraudsters monitor the content viewed by a probable victim before approaching him. They also check out the victim’s status, if he is single, divorced or separated,” said the police source and added that the accused lay the bait for those who they feel would be vulnerable to such acts.
Hari*, 48, working in a finance company, had received a message on Facebook on June 22 this year. Presuming that a single woman was messaging him, he agreed to video call and was duped into paying ₹34,000. An FIR was registered seven days later.
“I actively use Facebook and when I received the text messages, the account looked genuine and nothing about it was suspicious,” Hari said.
The number of victims who turn up with complaints is still relatively low, but is higher than what it used to be before the pandemic, police said. “People come forward to complain when they lose money, but don’t pursue an FIR due to social stigma. “The fear of receiving such calls again prevents them from taking action,” the source added.
Profile of the accused
In a slew of arrests made in connection with sextortion, the police arrested the kingpin of a Mewat-based gang. Saddam Hussain, 28, was arrested on August 6 for more than 50 extortion cases. Aamir Khan was arrested from Alwar on July 28 for sextorting ₹12,42,850 from a victim, the police said. Maximum arrests related to cyber frauds were made from Nuh, Bharatpur, Alwar, Mewat and Mathura. “The economy of these places is sustained by such scams that mostly involve school drop-outs in their twenties. The accused use Google Translator for conversations in English,” said the source.
There are apparently three levels of syndicates that run such rackets. “The first level arranges the SIM card using a fictitious government ID. The second level threatens the victim by impersonating as officials and the third level manages the bank accounts. Those involved either work from their village fields or operate from different areas on a fixed commission,” the source added.
(*Names changed to protect identity)