In a bid to stem the panic spreading among parents in the city owing to messages about child kidnappers doing the rounds on social media, Mumbai Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria has denied the existence of any such gang. Cops are sending out bulk messages to reassure citizens, and the top cop is personally monitoring the situation
While technology has enabled mischief-makers to explore new vistas, they seem to have opted for the oldest trick in the book preying on parents’ fears for the safety of their kids. For weeks now, the city and its outskirts have been abuzz with rumours of gangs of women armed with chloroform kidnapping little children.
The stories, which have been circulated on WhatsApp with slight variations for some time now (see box), have managed to build up panic among parents to such an extent that Mumbai Commissioner of Police Rakesh Maria has had to step in himself, asking people to not believe in such rumours.
While the Mumbai police has been circulating messages to this effect, the Palghar police superintendent (the rumours have been flying especially thick and fast between Vasai and Virar) has set up a helpline to field queries from anxious parents and assure them that their kids are safe.
Spreading like wildfire
For nearly two weeks, messages have been circulating on WhatsApp that a gang of nearly 1,500 women has been making kids unconscious using chloroform in Vasai-Virar and then kidnapping them. Subsequent messages were even accompanied by photographs of a woman, claiming that she had been caught in Vasai while trying to kidnap children using chloroform.
Building on these rumours, pranksters then began circulating messages of a woman in a car trying to kidnap a child in Walkeshwar and another woman trying to snatch a kid from an auto in Khar. These messages led to the environment of fear spreading from the outskirts into the city, forcing the police to step in.
Speaking to mid-day, Mumbai Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria said, “Please do not believe in such rumours at all. They are completely false. We have checked with all 94 police stations of Mumbai and there is no such gang. Someone is playing mischief and making the situation chaotic and causing panic among citizens.
Mumbai is very safe and there is no such gang active in the city. Please do not believe in such rumours and do not spread them.” “We are trying to nab the people who are circulating such messages and are also sending out bulk messages to citizens, asking them not to believe in such rumours. I am personally dealing with the situation to stop rumour mongering.”
Superintendent of Police (Palghar division) Suvez Haq said, “We are trying hard to stop the rumours. We are sending messages with numbers of local police stations, asking people not to believe in such rumours. The messages are completely false and state that a gang of 1,000-1,500 women is kidnapping kids using chloroform. We have not come across any such gang.”
DCP Dhananjay Kulkarni said, “Please do not believe in such messages. We are sending bulk messages on WhatsApp saying, ‘Do not believe in rumours on WhatsApp about kids being kidnapped. No such incidents have taken place. Dial 100 (police control room) for info.’ We are also keeping a tight vigil and have increased patrolling in schools.”
Understanding the psyche
Speaking to mid-day, psychiatrist Harish Shetty said, “The style being used by the mischief-makers is akin to ‘Chinese Whispers’, wherein the chain starts with one message and ends with a worse, or completely distorted, version of it.
For example, if a prankster sends a message about an accident in the morning, messages will be talking about the number of people dead by the evening, even though no accident would have occurred in the first place.” “The pranksters have managed to create an environment of fear, building on the cases of little children being abused and attacked.
In such an environment, even the smallest thing concerning children’s safety becomes the talk of the town and parents get scared and angry,” said Dr Shetty. Explaining what goes on in the minds of people who send such messages and spark such rumours, Dr Shetty said, “The offenders are thrill seekers. They just send one message and watch it multiply and cause panic.
They just send the message and then sit back and enjoy the consequences of the rumour that they manage to spark.” “The offenders are like the kids who used to call up restaurants earlier and order food giving the addresses of other people. With new technologies coming in, mischief-makers have switched to WhatsApp, which makes tracing them difficult,” he added.
When mid-day spoke to Ramesh Mohite, a cyber expert and former member of the Mumbai police’s cyber cell, and asked him how difficult it is to stop such rumours, he said, “The messages can be stopped if police officials contact the company and ask them to filter such messages and images out from their servers.
However, even the mischief-makers have gained technical expertise now, and they mask their numbers and IP addresses while sending the messages, making it very difficult to trace them.”
Flying thick and fast
Here are some of the rumours that have been doing the rounds:
>> A large gang of women has been targeting children and kidnapping them, mainly in Vasai-Virar
>> A message with photos claimed a woman had been nabbed in Vasai for kidnapping kids. It said chloroform was found on her
>> One message said the Dahisar police have arrested a woman for trying to kidnap a child. It said the police recovered chloroform from her
>> A gang of women has kidnapped at least around 10 children between Borivli and Goregaon
>> A woman in a car tried to kidnap a girl, but the child was saved in the nick of time by the security guard
>> In Khar, a woman tried to snatch a school kid from her mother in an auto
Sanskrita Pandey Thakur, Ghatkopar
Since the time that these rumours have been spreading, I have been taking extra precautions to ensure my son’s safety. Even if he is playing in the ground, I make sure that I am close to him and that no suspicious individuals are around.
Geeta Dalvi, Kalyan
I have been more concerned about my son ever since I heard about these rumours, and I have been making sure that I keep an eye on him. We are also making sure that at least one parent is with the kids when they are playing.
Ranjana Pawar, Sion
Sometimes, I used to ask my daughters to come home with their friends and their parents. But, since I heard about these incidents, I have been going to pick up and drop my daughters for their school and tuition classes.
Sanjana Shirgaonkar, Elphinstone Road
I have strictly told my 10-year-old son not to leave the school or tuition centre until I reach there. I have also told him not to entertain any aunty or uncle who approaches him and just wait for me.