In March 2021, a 26-year-old civil service aspirant, Avinash BS, from Bengaluru’s KR Puram area, died by suicide after he was repeatedly blackmailed by extortionists.
It was in October 2021, that Ajit (name changed), a 24-year-old software engineer living in Bengaluru decided to give online dating apps a chance. It was on a dating app that Ajit began talking to a woman named Renu. The two of them exchanged numbers after a few days of texting. “I received a WhatsApp video call the day after we had exchanged numbers. I answered it and to my horror saw that the woman on the other end was stripping her clothes. I cut the call within seconds, but that was enough for them, they had edited it to look like I had taken part in the act and was on the video call for quite some time,” Ajit recalled. The video was then used to blackmail Ajit to pay them Rs 2000. Even after paying Rs 1000, Ajit was continuously blackmailed for more money, which he refused. Ajit later blocked her on the advice of a friend.
Crimes like the above are called ‘sextortion’. By definition, sextortion is a crime wherein a victim is blackmailed using sensitive, and in most cases, morphed videos or photos. In a relatively new form of sextortion, police across states have observed yet another modus operandi – a person receives a video call from a new acquaintance or from a stranger. As soon as the call is answered, the person on the other end strips their clothes. The caller is then blackmailed with a screen recording of this call which makes it seem like he or she was watching the other person strip.
This is what happened to 53-year-old Bengaluru resident, Ravi (name changed) too, who was blackmailed by a saree vendor he met on Facebook. On the pretext of showing sarees to Ravi, a nude woman video called Ravi on WhatsApp. She then threatened to make the screen recording public unless Ravi sent her Rs 8000. Though Ravi sent Rs 6000 initially, he then gathered the courage to file a complaint in January 2022 with the Halasuru Gate Cyber Crime Station.
“Scammers can get their victim’s numbers through many ways, such as through restaurant records or third party apps. In many cases, the victims unknowingly end up sharing their numbers with the scammers,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police for Bengaluru Central, R Srinivas Gowda.
Many police officers TNM spoke to said that the actual number of such scams is way higher than the cases registered, as many victims do not file complaints. “They are scared, embarrassed and think that they will be shamed by their friends and family. They fear that they will be the ones to suffer consequences, and not the scammer,” said Kumaraswamy, Station House Officer of Halasuru Gate Cyber Crime Station.
In March 2021, a 26-year-old civil service aspirant, Avinash BS, from Bengaluru’s KR Puram area, died by suicide after he was repeatedly blackmailed by extortionists. They had blackmailed the 26-year-old into paying them Rs 36,000 in multiple transactions and continued to demand more. Avinash had been texting an unknown Facebook account by the name Neha Sharma. Soon enough, Avinash received a video call from the account, which he accepted and with that, he became yet another victim of sextortion. The scammers, unaware that Avinash had taken his own life after their blackmailing, reached out to his sister, posing as Avinash’s friends and asked for his whereabouts. His sister grew suspicious as all of Avinash’s friends were aware of his death and gave them the number of her nephew. They then began texting the new number asking for more money. That was when the reason behind Avinash’s suicide became clear to the family.
“Such cases are very hard to crack,” added SHO Kumaraswamy. “The scammers are aware that if they remain in the same state in which they target their victims, they will get caught. Therefore, for example, if the scammers are in north India, they target people in the south and vice versa,” he explained. The SHO also said that tracing the location of the scammers is difficult as they do use different numbers for the multiple calls made to their victims.
In Tamil Nadu too, several cases of sextortion have come under the police scanner. According to Amaraesh Pujari, Chennai Cyber Crime DGP, the police have received nearly 1582 sextortion complaints from all over Tamil Nadu since April 1, 2021. Similarly, the city of Pune alone saw more than 1,400 reported sextortion cases so far this year, according to Minal Patil, Cyber Police Station Inspector in Pune.
Another such elaborate scam cost a man from Tamil Nadu Rs 3.27 lakhs after he met a woman on Sharechat. Though he initially consented to the nude video call and paid her Rs 500, the woman kept calling him to demand more money. When he refused, she blocked him on WhatsApp. A few days later, a man posing as a Superintendent of Police called him to tell him that a woman named Kavitha had attempted suicide and has been admitted to a hospital. He was also told that sexual videos between him and Kavitha were found on her phone. The ‘SP’ then threatened that a case would be filed against him, as they had proof of videos and transactions between him and Kavitha. He went on to demand Rs 10,000 to spare him a police case, which the man duly sent.
The man sent an additional Rs 1.70 lakh in several instalments to the ‘SP’, on the grounds that the ‘police case’ would be closed. The SP then forced him to send another Rs 1.2 lakhs, saying that the man would lose his job otherwise. A while after he was told that the case was closed, the man received a call from a ‘police inspector’ who said that Kavitha had passed away. He was told that Kavitha’s mother had evidence of his transactions with her. The ‘inspector’ asked him to give the mother another Rs 2 lakhs. Scared, he sent Rs 27,000 in several instalments. The man finally filed a complaint only after he realised that they would never stop.
While the face of these scams have been women in most cases, the gangs are run and operated by men. Once the initial nude video call has been made, the scammers keep calling back posing to be police officers and even YouTube employees and demand money on the pretext of getting rid of the police case or deleting the video from YouTube. According to a report by the Indian Express, Mumbai had 54 sextortion FIRs registered in 2021 whereas 47 FIRs were registered in the first six months of 2022.
In some cases, victims need not even see anyone on the other end of the call to fall prey to such crimes. In March 2022, a 30-year-old man from Hyderabad received a WhatsApp video call from an unknown person. When he picked the call, all he saw was a blank screen with no audio. The call was abruptly disconnected and a short while later, he received a message with a morphed video of him that showed him in a video call with a nude person. The accused threatened to show the footage to his contacts if he did not pay them. He first paid Rs 5,000 and with more threats, transferred Rs 30,000 later. A few days later, the accused continued to make demands for payment and this time, the 30-year-old paid the accused Rs 20,000. He approached the police only after he lost a total of Rs 55,000 and realised that the threats wouldn’t stop.
In another incident in Hyderabad, a 25-year-old student lost Rs 98,400 in August 2022. He too reached out to the police only after realising that the threats won’t stop. A case was registered by the Rachakonda Cyber Crime Police for extortion, cheating and under sections of the Information Technology Act. In fact, such cases have been so high in the Rachakonda limits that local police issued a warning in 2021 asking men to not answer calls when being semi-nude.
Do not make half-naked video calls on #WhatsApp with people you met on #Facebook. They record that video call and #threaten you, #blackmail you and demand #money.#cybercrime #cybersecurity #CyberSafety #Cyberaware pic.twitter.com/HSiyf1B1gq
— Rachakonda Police (@RachakondaCop) October 16, 2021