(Names have been changed to protect the identities of the victims.)
On 15 March, Mukesh, a security guard in Delhi’s Shahdara, got a WhatsApp video call from an unknown number. Little did he know at the time that this call would lead to a cycle of blackmail, fear, and debt.
“When I picked up that call, a woman appeared on screen and started removing her clothes and asked me to do the same…,” alleged the 32-year-old.
Within days, he started getting calls from people pretending to be Delhi police officers and officials from YouTube – who told him that the screen recording will go viral, and they are the only ones who can ensure that it doesn't.
All he had to do, they told him, was to pay up a certain fee to ensure that the video doesn’t make it to phone screens of his wife, relatives, and employers.
“It was my mistake that I did not disconnect... In a few days I told my wife that I had made a mistake, she was supportive. The calls kept coming for the next three days. I paid Rs 22,000. Eventually, my brother-in-law found out that it was a scam.”Mukesh, a security guard
This is not just Mukesh’s story. For the last few months, many people – from across the country – have complained about getting WhatsApp video calls from unknown international numbers.
Some of these calls lead to cases of sextortion like in Mukesh’s case, while in other cases, unassuming people are getting scammed on the pretext of a job.
The common thread is loss of money – in some cases lakhs of it.
Such is the spike in such complaints that on 11 May, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State (MoS) for Electronics and Information Technology, took stock of the increasing number of WhatsApp calls from unknown international numbers, and added that a notice would be sent to the company.
He said, "The Ministry is taking note of it, they will send them a notice. I have said repeatedly that openness, trust, safety and accountability are the responsibility of platforms who deliver to digital nagriks."
The Quint spoke to victims of these scams, police officers investigating them, and cyber crime expert Rakshit Tandon to understand how people get trapped into paying thousands of rupees, and the modus operandi of such scams.
'Still Repaying Loans Borrowed to Pay Them': Victim
Mukesh borrowed Rs 22,000 from his employer and his brother-in-law in March. “I am still repaying the loans,” he told The Quint.
On 18 February, a 67-year-old Delhi-based man got a similar WhatsApp video call from an unknown number. Two days later, he got calls from people impersonating Delhi Police and YouTube officials, threatening to make his video ‘viral’ if he did not deposit a sum of Rs 50,000. They kept asking for more, until he lost Rs 13,70,000.
Prashant Gautam, Deputy Commissioner of Police (ntelligence Fusion and Strategic Operations ), told The Quint,
"It has come to our notice that there has been an increase in WhatsApp calls and messages from unknown numbers. Most of them are job offer scams or sextortion scams. In job scams, they ask people to do small tasks such as liking videos and then they ask them to pay an amount to receive more money back."
He added, “Meanwhile, in sextortion cases, they play an obscene video on a WhatsApp video call and take screenshots of people watching it and then threaten to circulate it if they do not pay the sum of money.”
DCP Gautam advised that it is best to “not pick up calls from unknown numbers. If one is serious about a job offer, then it would be advisable to do some research about the company, and to double check.”
'Got Calls From People Saying They are from Police, Youtube Office'
Five days after the video call, Mukesh alleged a middle-aged bespectacled man in a police uniform video called him. The display picture had a photo of police officers, too.
“The officer had a table in front of him. He must have been in his 50s. He told me not to make such a mistake again... He said that the video had been uploaded and I would have to reach out to the YouTube office to prevent it from circulating,” recounted Mukesh.
At first, he was asked to pay Rs 15,500 to prevent the video from being circulated. “I borrowed some money then,” said Mukesh. Soon after, people claiming to be from the YouTube office asked for an additional Rs 7,000 to “remove the video from Instagram.”
Originally from Madhya Pradesh, Mukesh had come to Delhi for work. His wife is employed as a domestic help.
"I had never visited a police station even in my village. So, when I got the call from the police station in Delhi, I believed it was a genuine call."Mukesh
The video, Mukesh said, was never uploaded. “They sent it to me and claimed that it was up on YouTube and on Instagram. I got scared and thought I might lose my job,” said Mukesh, seated in the parking lot a few houses away from his employer's house in a Shahdara colony.
He had borrowed Rs 8,000 from his employer but did not tell him the reason behind it. “He cut that amount from my salary. Rest I took from a relative. I am paying back Rs 3,000–Rs 5,000 to the relative every month. When I realised it was a scam, I went to the local police station and filed a complaint,” said Mukesh.
Sanjay Kumar, ACP, Cyber Police Station, Shahdara, said, “We have been receiving many such complaints. In most cases, older men are targeted and get scammed because they have families and reputations to maintain. Many of these operations are run from other parts of south Asia and they employ people in India to run the operations here.”
From Buying Multiple SIM Cards & Phones to Impersonation: How These Scams Operate
The 67-year-old man who got trapped similarly got calls from people impersonating a police officer and a ‘YouTuber’ named Sanjay Singh.
In his case, an FIR was lodged under sections 384 (extortion), 419 (cheating by personation), 420 (Cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), 120B (criminal conspiracy), and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) at the cybercrime police station in Shahdara.
Six accused were arrested in the case and six mobile phones, and seven SIM cards were recovered. It was found that they extorted over Rs 40 lakh from several victims.
DCP (Shahdara) Rohit Meena said:
"To commit the offence, they purchased SIM cards and mobiles phones from West Bengal and managed the fraud bank accounts with the help of the other co-accused. To threaten the victim, they used to make calls from fraud phone numbers and introduced themselves as Vikram Rathore, SHO Cyber, and Sanjay from YouTube. They used to target the elderly, as many of them were reluctant to complaint."
As per the police, accused Rahul Khan, 26, from Rajasthan, used to collect numbers, coordinate, and create the videos. Meanwhile, another accused, Armaan, 21, allegedly pretended to be a woman in the video.
Police claimed that accused Azad, 41, used to introduce himself as a police officer, while two minors were involved too and used apps such as Friend Search Tool 2022 to identify victims. These apps help people collect contacts.
Speaking about the modus operandi, Pawan Tomar, SHO, cyber police station, north Delhi, said, “Sometimes they first reach out to people on Instagram and Facebook, create a honey trap, and then they shift to WhatsApp, where they video call the victims.”
New Job Scam: An Instagram Profile of 'Angie' with Emma Watson's Photo
Turns out, WhatsApp is not the only way to scam people. Instagram, too, is being used to dupe innocent men and women looking to earn a quick buck.
To understand how the conversation shifts from Instagram to WhatsApp or Telegram, The Quint spoke to Chetan, 45, a private sector worker, who was a victim of a job scam.
He claimed that he saw a sponsored ad on Instagram about a work-from-home (WFH) opportunity on 28 April, and wondered if it would help him fund his son’s education if he had the extra income. “I was hoping to send my son to a good private college because the exams are competitive, and he might not make it... A private college would cost lakhs of rupees, and that is why I needed some extra income,” said Chetan.
Instead, in the coming days, Chetan lost Rs 3 lakh.
After Chetan reached out to the number on the Instagram post, a profile with the name "Angie" and a profile picture of actress Emma Watson, explained the nitty-gritties of the job. She referred to the website as a "mall." These websites contain a collection of links to retail websites maintained by merchants. His job was to "help the mall improve page browsing ranking."
He was then asked to register on a website called Crescent Tanners, and he was assured that the daily earnings would be anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 30,000. The conversations then moved to Telegram where another person gave him instructions on what to do next.
The conversations sounded professional enough to deceive him. At first, he was asked to pay Rs 300, and he received Rs 400 in his account. Then, he was asked to pay Rs 600, and he received Rs 800. “I was getting my amount back with commission, that is why I trusted them,” said Chetan.
With time, the amount kept increasing and he was asked to wait patiently for the amount to reflect. Recalling the day, he said,
"They gave me tasks such as buying products such as watches and perfumes. They were all Amazon products. I was told that if I spend Rs 3,000, I will be able to withdraw Rs 4,600."
The person kept telling Chetan that the "task" cannot be left midway, which meant that to withdraw his money, he would have to pay a bigger amount.
Chetan said, “It was like gambling... I kept paying till a point that my money was stuck and the only way to get the money back was to put in more.” At one point of time, Rs one lakh was stuck, and Chetan was asked to pay Rs 1.5 lakh to receive the entire payment. All transactions took place through UPI.
Over 24 hours later, he went to the police station, where he realised that it was a scam. A complaint was filed but no FIR has been registered yet. Chetan has not told his family about what happened, afraid that it will stress them out.
Rakshit Tandon, cyber security expert said, “This kind of scam is known as the mall fraud, where they use Amazon products.”
Speaking about how to avoid such scams, he said, “The number of calls have increased massively recently. I would advise users to immediately block such numbers and not respond with even ‘Who is this?’”
He added, “The work from home scam is of a few kinds – they will either ask victims to perform tasks such as like videos or they will ask them to buy products to get more money back which is also known as the mall fraud case. They also ask users to download malicious apps such as loan apps or work from home apps. When a user downloads them, they hack phones and get access to your entire gallery and contacts.”