Sextortionists on the prowl on social media amid COVID-19 pandemic
Crooks are luring lonely youth to sex chats, and then manipulating the screenshots in order to extort money during the pandemic
Loneliness amid the lockdown, especially among youngsters, has resulted in people falling victim to sextortionists who are targeting social media users on sites like Facebook and Instagram. mid-day reached out to people targetted by such crooks who first befriend them through a fake account, gradually develop a friendship and ask them to come on a video call.
Cyber experts believe that sextortionists are getting bolder with every day as they are aware that most cases go unregistered and police's hands are legally tied.
Screenshots of a morphed video of a victim sent by crooks to blackmail him
A couple of weeks ago, a 24-year-old fitness model from Andheri, received a message on Facebook from a random account appearing to be of a woman. After chatting for a certain time, the man was asked to come on a video call. "I was hesitant but she seemed to be genuine so I agreed. Turns out it was a recorded video, the chat was not live. The video showed a topless woman," the man said. "After I disconnected the video call, I was sent a screenshot of the video call. The picture showed my face morphed on to a half-naked body. The picture came on my WhatsApp number which I have made public on my FB account," the man added. He was asked to send Rs 5,000 through Google Pay.
He also claimed that a doctored video showing him having a video chat with a naked woman was sent on his WhatsApp. "A man demanded money from me on WhatsApp call, failing which the video would be uploaded on YouTube. He also sent me pictures of the video being uploaded on YouTube. I blocked four numbers on WhatsApp but the man continued to blackmail me using new ones. This went on for two hours"
"When the man realised I am not going to pay, he hacked into my Facebook account. I retrieved my account with the help of a cyber expert," the man said. He did not approach police fearing disrepute.
In another case, a 22-year-old student was contacted by an account on Instagram. "I was asked to share my WhatsApp number and soon received a video call. Then a crook demanded Rs 10,000 and sent me a screenshot of me on a video call with a girl. The chat I had with the supposed girl was also doctored as a sext." "I did not give in to the pressure and told the crook that I have shared the number with Mumbai police. Fearing a crackdown, the person deleted all WhatsApp messages he had sent," the youngster said.
A 25-year-old chemical engineer who went through a similar experience of chats being morphed into sexts was told to pay '5,000. He said that fake Instagram users study accounts carefully before targeting them. He too did not approach the police. "There has been a huge rise in sextortion cases where profiles with hashtags like #paytmgirl, #paytmgirls, #paytmfun and #paidfun try to attract users. They often drop comments like 'DM for fun' on posts of public figures to get noticed. They also offer rate cards for various services when users message them. The end goal is to get a user on video call, take a screenshot and use it for extortion. Many meme pages also promote such profiles, which has a negative impact," said cybersecurity expert Govind Ray.
"People must refrain from getting intimate virtually, especially with unknown people. In such cases, victims rarely report the issue to police fearing disrepute. But the fear only helps such crooks. Being fearless is the way to deal with them," Ray added.
A WhatsApp chat shows a crook demanding money from a victim; (right) a WhatsApp chat shows how an extortion victim refused to give in to pressure and threatened the crook with police action
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