An increasing number of women abroad are falling prey to extortion after striking up friendships on social media with men based in India, say law enforcement authorities in Delhi.
However, it is difficult to arrive at the exact number of such cases as there is no separate official data for such complaints, according to an official from the Delhi Police’s cyber cell who wished to remain anonymous.
In the most recent case, a 34-year-old Afghan man was arrested in the national capital earlier this week for extorting $86,000 from a 39-year-old woman living in the US whom he had befriended through a social networking site.
Pretending to be a Dubai-based banker, the accused, Hameedullah, befriended the woman in early 2016. The two soon entered into a relationship, and met each other several times. The accused had a few intimate photographs and videos of the complainant in his possession, which he had obtained after promising her that they would marry. During the course of their relationship, he kept asking her for money. After a point, when she objected to these demands, he threatened to upload the photographs and videos on social networking sites if she did not pay him. He also threatened her with an acid attack and of implicating her in a terror case.
The woman reported the matter to the police last week.
So far, the police have accessed two social network profiles operated by the accused, which contained entirely fake details about the accused.
“He [the accused] lived a luxurious life and flaunted his earnings acquired through such cheating,” said Ravindra Yadav, joint commissioner of Delhi Police (crime branch). “He was skilled in this regard and had his ways of ensnaring women through social networking sites. He is believed to have duped more women. We are investigating it.”
This is not an isolated case. Since its launch almost two years ago, the cyber cell unit of the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch has received several such complaints.
The cyber cell investigated its first such case in July 2015.
The complainant was a woman from the Republic of Azerbaijan who had sought the help of the Delhi Police via an e-mail.
The modus operandi here was almost similar to the case involving the Afghan man except for the fact that the complainant and the accused had never met face-to-face. However, the accused had still managed to obtain sexually explicit material featuring the complainant through video chats with her. He later threatened to upload these on porn websites if she did not pay him. The woman paid him $600 before she reported the matter to the police.
The police tracked down the accused in Haryana’s Kurukshetra town in September 2015. During investigations, it emerged that he had targeted nearly 900 women from several countries, including Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bahrain and the Philippines, and managed to extort at least $100 a month from many of them.
“The Afghan’s case is an exception,” said the official from the cyber cell. “Most offenders involved in such cases look out for countries from which women would actually want to come and settle in India.”
Two similar complaints from Myanmar and Pakistan channeled through their embassies in India led cyber cell officers to another accused in Nagpur.
Kislay Chaudhary, founder of Indian Cyber Army, a group of ethical hackers that assists the police in cyber crime investigations, said that the number of social media extortion cases is increasing, and with time they seem to be taking the shape of organised crime.
He added that even if the accused are tracked down, many of these international extortion cases did not lead to arrests. This is because the police works within limitations related to jurisdiction and protocol according to which complaints should come through the proper channels.
For example, the Azerbaijani woman approached the Delhi Police directly for help instead of lodging a formal complaint through her embassy. Though the accused in this case was detained and his bank account was frozen, he was not formally arrested. Instead, the Haryana Police, which took over the investigations from the Delhi Police, released a video of the accused pleading for forgiveness from all the women he had cheated.
The increase in the number of such scams has led to the emergence of a few websites that claim to expose serial scamsters. In fact, the complainant in the case where the accused is an Afghan had come across his details on one such website – whoscammedyou.com.
However, investigators say that such websites are not reliable as their contents are not verified by any law enforcement agency. They said that these websites could also be misused to malign innocent people.
“There are several such websites, catering to a wide range of scams,” said Chaudhary. “But the problem is that their databases are largely based on personal scam experiences that people share. And web users can feed wrong information, even with mala fide intentions as the details are not verified by any agency.”
Many women in India have also been victims of what the police refers to as the gift scam, another kind of online fraud.
In such scams, the accused befriends his victim online and then tells that person that he has sent an expensive gift, such as jewellery. In a day or two, an associate calls up and informs the victim that the gift has been confiscated at the airport. The duping then begins under the pretext of payment for customs clearance, transport fees and taxes. Ultimately, the gift never arrives.
“In such cases, the accused are mostly based abroad and the detection rate is very low for investigating agencies,” said Chaudhary. “Police across cities have initiated several awareness drive against such crimes but still there is some level of vulnerability among the victims for which such drives have not worked out too well in terms of outcome.”
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