COVID-19 Throws Bengaluru a Challenge: ‘Sextortion’ Rackets
In Bengaluru, sextortion has been on the rise since the lockdown. Avinash, an MBA grad, died by suicide on 23 March.
BS Avinash, a 26-year-old MBA graduate based in Bengaluru, died by suicide on 23 March. Shortly after, his sister, who does not want to be identified, got a ransom message on Facebook from one Rekha Sharma.
The sister provided Rekha Sharma with the mobile number of a relative. Someone who referred to himself as Tejas called soon. “He demanded Rs 21,000 as final settlement to delete a video. He spoke in Hindi mostly and his English wasn’t good. It sounded like he was from north India,” said the victim’s sister. Tejas reportedly revealed to the family that Rekha Sharma has three managers – Moin Khan, Robin Khan and Javed.
Rekha Sharma happened to be a fake handle created to lure men to perform sexual acts while on video call. Her handlers were men who emerge for blackmail once the acts are recorded.
Only the encounter with Tejas revealed to Avinash’s family that he had taken his life to escape sextortion.
Sextortion refers to the practice of coercing someone to pose nude or perform sexual acts on camera, to later blackmail them to pay for the video footage or images. Sextortionists, like extortionists, threaten to make public the lewd video content.
‘Pandemic Upped Cases’
“This is the trending modus operandi,” MD Sharath, SP, CID (Cyber Crime) told The Quint, “With the profile of a lady, a gang targets a person, makes him strip during a video call, and screen records the activity.” The footage is then used for sextortion. Cases of sextortion have increased rapidly especially after the COVID-19 lockdown, he added.
According to Sharath, apart from Facebook, cases of sextortion are rampant on online dating apps as well. In January this year, according to media reports, a 38-year-old former teacher was arrested for uploading her profile on matrimonial websites to “trap people”.
Sextortionists are also on the prowl on Zoom, the popular app now used by millions for online office meetings and for online education. Cyber experts say that calls on such apps are not encrypted, thus paving the way for hackers to easily enter these chats and record videos.
In Bengaluru, even minors have even been victims of sextortion. In 2017, a minor was targeted after being befriended by someone on Facebook. Reports claim that the alleged perpetrator forced the child to send nude pictures of his parents. The matter was taken to the police, who registered a case of criminal intimidation and extortion. The police did not reveal details of the case’s progress to The Quint.
Avinash’s Family Distraught
“I was shocked when I realised that my brother had hanged himself,” said Avinash’s sister, even now traumatised by his untimely demise, which now seems to be the result of an incautious interaction on Facebook. “When I took a look at my brother’s bank transactions, I noticed that on a single day he had made six transactions, which totalled Rs 36,000,” the sister said.
Bengaluru police’s investigation has now revealed that Avinash fell victim to sextortion after chatting with a Facebook friend named Neha Sharma. He stripped at her behest during a video call, said police sources.
“How I wish my brother had exercised caution. How I wish he had spoken to us,” said the victim’s sister, mourning his loss.
The police have registered an FIR against five suspects. SP Sharath said that several other victims have also been coming forward to report cases. “A person is humiliated with nude pictures and sexually explicit content. The victim will most often resort to taking one’s own life than step into a police station to fight the case,” he said.
While police sources say that they have some leads in Avinash’s case, the sister claims that the cops haven’t made any headway yet and that her calls to the police remain unanswered.
Bengaluru police have arrested two members of the gang that allegedly trapped Avinash. A hunt is on for three other members, police sources said.
Sextortion and Porn Connection
There seems to be a link between sextortion and consumption of pornography, experts say. After the start of the pandemic, there has been a 95 percent spike in India’s consumption of pornography according to statistics released by PornHub website in April 2020. Several sextortionists have allegedly been operating blackmailing rackets via porn sites.
“With the rise in pornographic content, certain extortion gangs bluff a victim, and blackmail them, even without evidence,” said Na. Vijayashankar, an expert in cyber laws.
Perpetrators randomly claim that they are aware of the victim’s access and activities on porn sites. They may not have any evidence, but would still make money by playing on the victim’s fear of public shame, he added.
MD Sharath said that most of these exchanges happen through e-mails. Certain reports suggest that some scammers claim to have hacked into the home security cameras of victims, without actually doing so.
A cybersecurity firm called Avast is also of the opinion that most sextortion e-mails end up being fake claims. This firm is believed to have blocked over half a million sextortion attack attempts in January, 2021 alone. According to Avast, most of these attacks targeted nearly 4,000 English-speaking users in India.
As per a research conducted by cybersecurity firm Sophos, India is among the top10 countries from where sextortion mails originate.
Generating 3.73 percent of the world’s sextortion emails, India has the fifth spot in the global list. Vietnam is at the top accounting for 7.01 percent of the world’s sextortion emails. The findings of the research were released in January 2021.
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