New Delhi: It usually starts with a friend request on Facebook (now Meta) from an ordinary-looking woman with an ordinary-sounding name, like Pooja or Anjali. You are a man, probably in your forties, married, well-off, bored. You’re intrigued, maybe a little flattered, so you accept the friend request and start chatting.
Pooja seems to really like you because a few messages later, she wants to take the conversation to a more private place, on WhatsApp. You share your number and then things really start to move quickly. “Dekhna hai kuch? (Want to see something)? ”She asks.“ Bathroom jao. (Go to bathroom). “You follow her instructions and a video call comes in. You are so excited it doesn’t matter that you can’t see the woman very clearly.
Soon after, your phone rings and the nightmare begins. Someone sent you a recorded clip of the video chat that you just enjoyed. It shows the woman in a sexually explicit position and you, also undressed, touching each other. There is also an SMS: “Paisa bhejo… batao, daal doon in line? (Pay… or should I put this online)? “
If you pay immediately, there is no guarantee that this will be the end and you will always live in fear. If you don’t pay, “Pooja” will do their best to convince you. You will receive phone calls from Assam, Odisha, West Bengal, one fake number after another. Or, a number that appears to be from YouTube will tell you that your video is live and you need to pay to remove it. Or, you might even receive phone calls from a “police officer” demanding a bribe.
This is how many “sextortion” rackets are currently taking place in India, several of them being effectively exploited by gangs based in the Mewat-Bharatpur-Alwar belt in Rajasthan. Police sources told ThePrint that in one case a single International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number showed the use of 1,100 SIM cards to harass the victim from different numbers.
According to the Intelligence and Strategic Operations Fusion Unit (IFSO) of the Delhi Police Special Cell, there have been eight such cases in the past year. Each case includes hundreds of victims and multiple complaints, and there have been six arrests so far.
The victims ranged from a senior doctor at a well-known Delhi hospital and a UP police officer, to businessmen and politicians.
ThePrint explains how these rackets work and who are the easiest targets.
Also read: How a Rajasthani man staged a ‘sextortion’ racket and stole 30 lakhs of rupees from over 300 victims
How the trap is set
The first step in a sextortion operation is to create a decoy suitable for the target. Delhi Police sources told ThePrint that the gangs crawl the Facebook pages of ordinary women and then identify profiles from which they can upload photos.
“They use the same images of women to create the fake profiles. The most commonly used names are Anjali Sharma and Pooja Sharma. It is important for them to use the photos [of real women] because they serve as the perfect bait, ”a law enforcement source said.
After contact is made, the conversation switches to WhatsApp and a video call, but there is actually no woman on the other end of the phone.
“They don’t use any sound, with the excuse the family might hear. While the target uses the front camera, the accused here uses the rear camera and broadcasts an adult video from a pornographic website where a woman is only partially seen, mainly the upper part. As soon as the call ends, the target receives a message asking for money, ”the source said.
Sextortion is a process, sources explained, that continues for at least two or three days, or until the target pays.
“Men often succumb and pay the money. If they don’t pay it the first time, a call is made as a “YouTube agent” on Truecaller. The target is told that their video has been uploaded to YouTube and that they will have to pay to remove it because it is breaking the rules. The image on the WhatsApp profile is also that of the YouTube icon, ”another Delhi Police source said, adding that in most cases the compromising videos are never actually shared online.
If the YouTube ploy doesn’t work, another call masquerading as a police officer is made, another source said.
“The second call is often made posing as a police officer, using voice modulation software. In one case, they even used the name of a sextortion investigative officer. The amount requested per victim varies from Rs 5,000 to Rs 2-3 lakh. They are asking for amounts that they know the victim can afford, ”he said.
In one of these cases in October, a man from Rajasthan, who extorted Rs 30 lakh from more than 300 victims, used the image of Delhi Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana.
In another bizarre case, the officer said, the victim learned that the girl in the video had committed suicide and that he had to shell out money to close the case.
The videos, according to sources, are actually not that explicit in general, but the victims always cough up the money for fear of being humiliated by society.
Gangs operate as “mini cottage industries”
Sources said many sextortion gangs operate as “mini cottage industries”, with two to four members performing each scam. The “operations” are generally managed from one of the members’ homes, most often that of the “hub”. Laptops, phones and SIM cards are kept there along with everything else needed for the sextortion racket. Rooms, mostly towards the backyard of houses, often have tinted windows and long curtains.
“It’s like a mini cottage industry in the Mewat-Bharatpur-Alwar belt. In fact, they are often treated as the ‘ladki walas’ (on the bride’s side) in their native villages. Everyone knows what they’re doing, but hardly anyone wants to report them. Even when teams go to arrest them, villagers come together to lend their support in most cases, which makes the process difficult, ”said a police source, adding that more and more young people see sextortion rackets as viable employment opportunities.
Some gangs, in fact, have members who are only 14 years old.
To deposit their ill-gotten gains, gangs are setting up bank accounts, using fake IDs, all over India. “Gangs operate in modules. One module is responsible for creating these accounts and another makes the withdrawal. They take the Aadhaar details of the individuals and pay them an amount to open those accounts, ”the second source said.
Typically, gangs have two to four members leading the first extortion attempt, but they can amass a staggering number of casualties over time.
In one of the most important cases to be resolved this year, police found more than 40 videos of victims on the phones of gang members, who were operating from Bharatpur. In this case, the police received the first complaint in October 2020, but it took them about three months to arrest the six gang members. “The defendants were using SIM cards and bank accounts obtained using fake and fake IDs, so locating them was a challenge,” Anyesh Roy, DCP cyber cell, said at the time. Recount the media.
A police source told ThePrint that sextortion gangs often target men over 40, for “psychological and sociological reasons.”
“First, they are married and fear exposure to their families and society. Second, they have the resources to repay the amount of the extortion. They are easy to trap, ”the source said.
Before making contact, gang members go through the list of Facebook friends and post the target’s history. “They study the accounts of the men, of their entourage. This allows them to blackmail the victims more, ”the source said.
Unfortunately, most targets are reluctant to contact the police for fear of social stigma, and when they do, they usually want to avoid going to court. This, according to police sources, can hamper investigations and convictions.
“There is a lot of social stigma associated with reporting sextortion cases to the police. More often than not, the victim does not want to file a complaint and even if she does, she refuses to appear in court for having recorded the statement and identified the video. This causes delays in the probe. Most of them want to take a settlement instead of the legal sentencing process, ”said KPS Malhotra, DCP Cyber Cell, IFSO.
Police sources have also shed light on the careful steps of a cyber sextortion investigation. “The investigation begins with tracking the numbers from which the calls were made. Once the numbers are tracked, subscriber details are verified – CDR (Call Details Records), linked banks, e-wallets like Paytm (for top-ups), etc. Since the numbers are coming from a different location, it takes careful investigation to locate the actual users, ”the third source said. If caught, the accused in such cases is usually charged under Sections 384 (punishment for extortion), 420 (cheating), 120B (conspiracy) and 419 (cheating by impersonation) of the Indian Penal Code.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
Also read: CBI dismantled child sex racket “spreads from Pakistan to US, shares videos on social media”