Bikaner and Sidhi, India – Shyam, a truck driver in northern India’s city of Prayagraj, had not had sex with his pregnant wife for six months when he saw an advertisement on the Telegram messaging app promising to make his fantasies come true.
Shyam, 44, was impressed by the ad’s formal tone and eagerly followed a link to a pink-themed website, where he was asked to pay a registration fee of 4,000 Indian rupees ($48.28).
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Shyam made the payment at his local bank and returned home excitedly to access the website, only to be asked to pay an additional 6,000 rupees ($72.44) for every session of cyber-sex. He paid the sum and was told to wait for a video call during the next 24 hours.
A few hours later, Shyam received a video call from an unknown number. Removing his shirt, Shyam stood in front of his phone’s camera and answered. After a few seconds, a naked young woman touching herself appeared on the screen. Then the call was cut short.
As Shyam tried to figure out what had happened, he received a WhatsApp message from the same number along with a recording of the video call. The message came with a threat: Deposit 15,000 rupees ($181) to this bank account within 24 hours or this video will go viral.
Shyam estimated it would take him 10-12 months to save up that amount with his monthly salary of 20,000 rupees ($241), which is barely enough to support his family of four.
“My finances were already running dry, so I had to use the money I was saving for my son’s tuition,” Shyam told Al Jazeera, speaking on the condition that he be referred to by a pseudonym.
“My relief was short-lived as the payment was followed by calls and SMS messages blackmailing me to deposit 30,000 rupees ($362.14), which I eventually did by borrowing from friends.”
Shyam is among the growing number of victims of online sextortion in India.
Once a phenomenon associated with public figures in Bollywood and politics, such scams have become more prevalent across all sections of Indian society alongside the ubiquitous rise of smartphones and fast internet.
While statistics on online sextortion scams are not available, 52,974 cybercrimes were reported in India in 2021, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), up from 44,735 cases in 2019.
A total of 13,196 of those cases were registered under Section 67 of The Information Technology Act, 2000, which penalises the publication or distribution of obscene material in electronic form.
Many experts believe online sextortion is vastly underreported due to data-collection constraints and the social stigma of coming forward.
“The cases of this fraud saw a spike during the COVID-19 lockdowns as most people were confined at home working and got exposed to the internet more than ever before,” Rakshit Tandon, a cybersecurity expert based in Noida, told Al Jazeera.
“Internet penetration has also increased as smartphones and the internet reach lower-income groups.”
India has more than 932 million internet users, more than any other country apart from China, according to Statista. Statista estimates that figure will grow to more than 1.5 billion by 2040.
People who are lonely or stuck in sexless relationships, young adults desperate to lose their virginity and older people with no outlet for desires are among those vulnerable to sextortion. People with poor digital literacy are considered especially at risk.
Scammers typically use fake personas to target their victims through social media, dating apps, spam text messages and online advertisements.
The scam often begins with a friend request or message from a fake profile of an attractive female. Potential targets’ friends are also often contacted to use for the eventual blackmail. Before the scammers approach their target, their social media profile may be examined for evidence that they enjoy a flashy lifestyle.
Another common method involves posting links to scam websites and social media accounts under popular reels and videos on Instagram and Facebook, in Telegram groups, or on popular websites and forums. The scam websites often go to significant lengths to appear professional. In some cases, a pornographic video or sex worker is used to entice the person to perform sexual acts.
“The website pattern contributes to the formation of an authentic impression with a formal tone that is seen as professional,” Natwar, a 26-year-old admitted cyber-fraudster in Mewat, eastern Rajasthan, told Al Jazeera, asking to only be identified by his first name.
For would-be scammers in undeveloped regions such as Mewat, where the illiteracy rate is more than 30 percent, building an entire website can be difficult and time-consuming.
Calling a target directly via WhatsApp or engaging them on social media is often more appealing.
“The chances of turning every attempt into a success are roughly the same in all techniques,” said Natwar, who has been arrested several times for cyber-fraud.
“Once we’re successful, we’ll make sure to save the naked photographs and screen record the video, which is blank from our end and lasts only six to 10 seconds, and cut the call.”
According to a study by Sophos, a cybersecurity firm in the United Kingdom, almost half a million US dollars in profits were generated by sextortion spam messages between September 1, 2019, and January 31, 2020, alone. India was identified as the source of 3.73 percent of the messages, more than any country apart from Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina and South Korea.
Some scammers have been known to impersonate the police to extract money from their victims.
Ajay, a plumber in Nagaur, Rajasthan who earns 10,000-15,000 Indian rupees ($120-181) per month, said a person identifying himself as a member of the Indian Police Service (IPS) threatened to prosecute him for paying for sex after he was blackmailed out of 60,000 rupees ($724.48) in a sextortion scam on Facebook.
“On the second day, I blocked the scammer’s number but after a few hours, I received a call from an unknown number identified as ‘Shyam IPS’ on Truecaller, a caller identification application,” Ajay told Al Jazeera, speaking on the condition he would not be identified by his real name.
Ajay said the person posing as a police officer told him to “negotiate” with the extortionist or face up to four years in prison for buying sexual services. Ajay blocked the number after consulting with a counsellor from a local non-governmental organisation (NGO).
The effect of sextortion on victims isn’t limited to their finances.
In a society where sex is shrouded in taboos, victims’ mental health can suffer, too.
Shyam, the truck driver in Prayagraj, said he has not had a peaceful night’s sleep since he was scammed early this month. Not only does he fear that his sextortion video will be circulated, he feels guilty for seeking sexual gratification outside his marriage during his wife’s pregnancy.
“Suicidal thoughts strike every day,” he said. “I even tried to end my life once but failed the minute the thought of my kid arose. My income wasn’t sufficient even for us and now with this debt and the mental torment, life is becoming hell. This is something that I can’t even share with anyone”.
Mukesh Choudhary, a cybercrime consultant for the Jaipur Police, said scammers take advantage of victims’ exaggerated fears as well as their ignorance of India’s cyberlaws, which allow authorities to remove obscene material from the Internet.
“The fear of video dissemination is a psychological game because the videos are very rarely posted online because if they do, they could be punished under Section 67 of The Information Technology Act, 2000, which penalises publishing or distributing obscene material in electronic form. It could be deleted if they do,” Choudhary said.
“These aren’t the private videos of a famous person, nor do they have a YouTube channel with millions of subscribers for making them viral. Using stigma, fear, and misinformation, they play with the victim’s mind.”
Fearing stigma, many victims prefer to seek help from NGOs instead of the police as it allows them to communicate over the phone and keep their identity private.
“Most victims come to us with a fabricated story and say they don’t want to go to the police because they don’t want to be defamed,” Milind Agarwal, president of India’s first cybercrime NGO, Cyber Crime Awareness Society, told Al Jazeera.
“First, we convince them the footage won’t be posted online. Second, we ask that they block them for the next two to three days and don’t answer unknown calls or messages. They must report any contact with outsiders. They’ll follow up for two to three days and then stop. “This strategy has worked in every case.”
Charges are brought in only about one-third of reported cybercrime cases, according to NCRB data. Some experts believe police apathy and a lack of properly-trained and forensic resources are key factors in the low prosecution rate.
“If you are an ordinary man, police won’t register your complaint if it is merely a threat and until the video has been posted online,” Agarwal said.
“The approach appears to be the inverse for influential figures.”
While cybercrime is rapidly evolving due to advances in technology, the related law is nearly 20 years old and has only been amended once.
“Because of improvements in technology, computer programs and networks are always evolving, and with this advancement, cybercrime is also evolving and they also have simpler punishments. Punishments must be tough in order to reduce such crimes,” Shashank Tiwari, a high court lawyer in the central state of Madhya Pradesh who specialises in cybercrime cases, told Al Jazeera.
As a borderless crime, cybercrime also poses jurisdictional issues.
“Multiple jurisdictions are challenging. Rajasthan is a sextortion hotspot, therefore we have established a platform to provide assistance to other states’ police,” Sharat Kaviraj, deputy inspector general of the State Crime Records Bureau, told Al Jazeera.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs has also implemented interstate cybercrime measures. Criminals basically exploit system vulnerabilities, therefore sim card issuing, bank account openings, and Know Your Customer procedures should be tightened.”
Cybercrime experts say that if India is to avoid becoming a hotbed of sextortion, the country must reform the law, modernise its policing system and remove the social shame associated with sex.
In the meantime, victims such as Shyam and Ajay feel they have no legal recourse and rely on counselling provided by NGOs to cope.
“I still wonder why I, a poor person, who is hardly surviving with his family, was targeted for financial fraud,” Ajay said. “But then I realised, I don’t matter to the system but I matter enough to society that it would drive me to death if things ever came out. A perfectly helpless target.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org