New Delhi: It generally 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 his 40s, married, well off, bored. You are 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 somewhere more private, to WhatsApp. You share your number, and then things really start moving fast. “Dekhna hai kuch? (Want to see something)?” she asks. “Bathroom jao. (Go to the bathroom).” You follow her instructions, and a video call comes in. You are so excited that it doesn’t matter that you can’t see the woman very clearly.
Soon afterwards, your phone buzzes and the nightmare begins. Someone has sent you a recorded clip of the video chat you just enjoyed. It shows the woman in a sexually explicit position and you, also undressed, touching yourself. There’s a text message too: “Paisa bhejo… batao, daal doon online? (Pay up… or should I put this online)?”
If you pay at once, there are no guarantees it will be the end of it, and you will always live in fear. If you don’t pay, ‘Pooja’ will do her best to convince you. You will get phone calls from Assam, Odisha, West Bengal, one fake number after another. Or, a number that seems to be from YouTube will tell you that your video is up and you need to pay to take it down. Or, you might even get phone calls from a ‘police officer’ demanding a bribe.
This is how many “sextortion” rackets in India currently run, several of them operated efficiently by gangs based in the Mewat-Bharatpur-Alwar belt in Rajasthan. Police sources told ThePrint that in one case, a single IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number showed the use of as many as 1,100 SIM cards to harass the victim from different numbers.
According to the Intelligence Fusion and Strategic Operations (IFSO) unit of the Delhi Police Special Cell, there have been eight such cases in the last one year. Each case comprises hundreds of victims and multiple complaints, and there have been six arrests so far.
The victims have ranged from a senior doctor at a reputed Delhi hospital and a UP police officer, to businessmen and men with a political background.
ThePrint explains how these rackets operate and who make for the easiest targets.
How the trap is laid
The first step in a sextortion operation is to create a suitable lure for the target. Sources in the Delhi Police told ThePrint that gangs parse through the Facebook pages of ordinary women and then identify profiles from which they can download photos.
“They use the same images of women to create the fake profiles. The most common names used are Anjali Sharma and Pooja Sharma. It’s important for them to use the photos [of real women] since these serve as the perfect bait,” a police source said.
Once contact is made, the conversation shifts to WhatsApp and a video call, but there are actually no women on the other end.
“They don’t use any audio, with the excuse that family might hear. While the target uses the front camera, the accused here uses the back camera and runs an adult video from a pornographic website where a woman is only seen partially, mostly the upper part. As soon as the call ends, the target receives a message demanding money,” the source said.
Sextortion is a process, sources explained, that continues for at least two or three days, or until the target pays up.
“Men often succumb and pay the money. If they don’t pay it in the first go, then a call is made that comes up as ‘YouTube officer’ on Truecaller. The target is told that their video has been uploaded on YouTube and that they will need to pay to take it down since it violates 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, then another call impersonating a police officer is made, another source said.
“The second call is often made impersonating a police officer, using voice modulation software. In one case, they even used the name of a sextortion investigation officer. The amount demanded per victim ranges from Rs 5,000 to Rs 2-3 lakh. They ask amounts that they know the victim can afford,” he said.
In one such case in October, a Rajasthan man, who extorted Rs 30 lakh from more than 300 victims, used Delhi police commissioner Rakesh Asthana’s image.
In another bizarre case, the officer said, the victim was told that the girl in the video had committed suicide and that he needed to shell out money to close the case.
The videos, sources said, are actually not that explicit usually, but victims still cough up the money due to fear of social humiliation.
Gangs run like ‘mini cottage industries’
Sources said that many sextortion gangs function like “mini cottage industries”, with two to four members running each scam. The ‘operations’ are usually run from one of the homes of the members, most often that of the ‘kingpin’. The laptops, phones, and SIMs are kept there along with everything else needed for the sextortion racket. The rooms, mostly towards the backyard of the homes, often have tinted windows and long curtains.
“It is like a mini cottage industry in the Mewat-Bharatpur-Alwar belt. In fact, they are often addressed as the ‘ladki walas’ (bride’s side) in their native villages. Everyone knows what they do, but hardly anyone wants to report them. Even when teams go to arrest them, the villagers assemble in their support in most cases, which makes the process difficult,” a police source said, adding that more and more youth are viewing sextortion rackets as viable employment opportunities.
Some gangs, in fact, have members who are as young as 14. “They only require a laptop and a phone, which are easy to have at hand nowadays,” a third police source said.
To deposit their ill-gotten gains, gangs create bank accounts, using fake IDs, across India. “The gangs run in modules. One module is responsible for creating these accounts and another takes the cash out. They take the Aadhaar details of individuals and pay them an amount to open these accounts,” the second source said.
In general, gangs have two to four members running the initial extortion attempt, but they can amass an impressive number of victims over time.
In one of the biggest cases to be cracked this year, the police found more than 40 videos of victims on the phones of the gang members, who operated from Bharatpur. In this instance, the police received the first complaint in October 2020, but it took them around three months to nab the six gang members. “The accused were using SIMs and bank accounts obtained using fake and bogus IDs, hence pinpointing them was a challenge,” then DCP cyber cell, Anyesh Roy had told the media.
The soft targets
A police source told ThePrint that sextortion gangs often target men above the age of 40, for “psychological and sociological reasons”.
“First, they are married, and are scared of being exposed to their family and society. Second, they have the resources to pay off the extortion amount. They are easy to trap,” the source said.
Before making contact, gang members go through the Facebook friend list and posting history of the target. “They study the accounts of the men, their circle. This enables them to further blackmail the victims,” the source said.
Unfortunately, most targets hesitate to contact the police due to fear of social stigma, and when they do, they generally want to avoid appearing in court. This, police sources said, can hinder investigations and convictions.
“There is a lot of social stigma attached to reporting sextortion cases to the police. More often the victim doesn’t want to file the complaint and even if he does, he refuses to appear before the court for recording the statement and identifying the video. This leads to delays in the probe. Most of them want to take a settlement instead of the legal process of conviction,” K.P.S. Malhotra, DCP Cyber Cell, IFSO said.
Police sources also threw light on the painstaking steps in a cyber sextortion investigation. “The investigation starts with tracking the numbers from which the calls were made. Once the numbers are tracked, the subscriber details are checked — CDRs (call detail records), banks linked, e-wallets like Paytm (for recharges) etc. As the numbers are from a different location, it takes a rigorous probe to locate the actual users,” the third source said. If nabbed, the accused in such cases are usually charged under sections 384 (punishment for extortion), 420 (cheating), 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 419 (cheating by personation) of the Indian Penal Code.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)