Telangana Telangana

Stalking in the virtual world

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

Recently, a third-year student of Computer Science engineering from the city made headlines when he was caught for securing sexually compromising photographs of nearly 70 teenage girls and threatening to post them online.

According to the reports and the police, the 21-year-old created six Facebook handles under fictitious names of girls, by collecting and posting photographs on Facebook of teenage girls from the Internet. The young man is accused of attempting to extort money from all those he befriended and subjected to psychological trauma. “Masquerading as a girl, he sent friendship requests randomly to girls studying in reputed schools of the city. He wanted more people on his friends list on Facebook. Some accepted the requests,” said Cyberabad Cyber Crimes ACP, S. Jayaram. After chatting with the girls, mostly adolescents, for a few days, the man began asking them questions about their sexual activities. The unsuspecting girls shared their details with him.

The problem arose when he asked the girls to send nude photos of themselves. He blackmailed them saying he would make his online chats with them public if they refused to send him the pictures. The terrified girls sent him photographs through Facebook messenger, but then began receiving calls from him demanding money. He threatened to post their nude pictures online. The girls’ parents were unaware of all this.

The case came to light when a 12th standard student’s mother approached cyber crimes investigators after she learnt of her daughter’s distress. The accused was traced and put behind bars after the police gathered incriminating evidence of the Internet Protocol addresses he used to create the Facebook addresses.

The incident shows that as more young women are becoming active online, the number of people targeting them has also soared. The city cyber crimes wing finds itself facing close to 60 cases of online fraud on girls every two months. Added to this, the conviction rate in such cases remains abysmally low because of limitations in solving cyber crimes and long-drawn legal battles.

Why do such cases not reach police stations often? Parents are embarrassed, says Cyberabad Police Commissioner, C.V. Anand. “It was embarrassing for the parents to see such photos of their children, but even more disturbing for us to realise how harrowing it was for the teens,” he said. Parents don’t want these cases to be registered as they worry about their reputation. They also want the “culprits to be only warned and counselled,” according to the police.

And it is not just teenagers who are targeted. Priya Saxena, a 27-year-old software engineer from Hyderabad, thought she would marry Rohit Saxena, a surgeon based out of New Delhi in April. Instead, she ended up Rs. 30,000 poorer that month as she loaned the money to the ‘doctor’ whom she met on a matrimony website. Mr. Saxena now remains elusive and the cyber crimes division in the city has shown little interest in acting on the complaint she lodged five months ago.

As hundreds of such complaints pile up with the cyber crimes police, women say that online fraudsters these days are equipped, convincing and smart enough to get away. Independent women have become hot targets and societal institutions and the police are unable to bring fraudsters to book.

City psychologists who attend to such cases feel that once women enter an online trap, they find it hard to break away. The criminal, they say, by then puts their ‘reputation’ at stake. “The blame should not be on the young women but on the system which does not give them the support they need if they end up being cheated. Women who freely express their sexuality are still considered loose. Instead of improving the conviction rate in such cases to prevent further incidents, the general attitude is to ask women to be ‘careful’ and that does not work,” says Gauri Devi, a psychiatrist and counsellor based in the city. Online platforms allow free sharing of personal information, but when women are sexually and emotionally abused or cheated, the tendency is to put the blame on them rather than on the harasser.

How can this problem be solved? Only fast redress and immediate legal recourse can ensure web safety, social workers rallying for safe cyberspaces for women say. Social networking platforms, where identities can be forged, should be held accountable for the growing number of crimes, they opined.

“The administrators of popular social networking platforms with head offices outside India should respond to police queries from India at a faster pace than they do now. They should not keep requests pending for long,” said Swati Lakra, additional Commissioner of Police (Crime). Personal information including bank details, and soft content including pictures and videos, should not be shared online, the police caution.

“Let us not overlook our children’s Internet usage. Keep track of who they are following and what they are following. Do not hesitate to approach the police in case of harassment,” says Swethi Prabhu, mother of a teenager who escaped from falling victim in a recent case and complained to the police.

After the case of the 21-year-old engineering student, the police have decided not to take the matter lightly. “We will register cases in every such instance hereafter and secure conviction to the accused,” they say.

For Ms. Saxena who manages her matrimonial profile on her own, support from friends, family and police holds the key to justice. However, in a society which looks down upon women who make active choices, the support mostly remains elusive, she says. “Women are more active in finding their matches these days. Male fraudsters prowl online assuming that women won’t complain because of ‘shame’. Of the very few cases that go to the police station, a majority remain unsolved and the culprits remain at large. This does not help the situation,” she says. If exchanges online are sexual in nature, the lesser the chance that they will get reported, cyber crime specialists say. Cyber crimes against women within the age group of 18 to 40 years are rapidly growing, they added.

But active policing is easier said than done because like regular offences, many cyber crimes registered by the police get stuck in the courts due to legal technicalities and inadequate evidence. Unless the message is sent loud and clear, until the guilty are punished, nothing will really change. Others will only be more emboldened and harass girls online, warn senior police officers.

In this Information Age, it is not enough for parents to only watch who their children interact with in person, but also who they interact with over the Internet. The oft-heard warning from parents, “Don’t speak to strangers”, does not apply only to the offline world but also to the online world — especially to the online world, in fact, where strangers can be faceless and can easily adopt false identities.

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 9:15:26 AM |

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