Sextortion, the new precision targeting virtual crime in town

Pankaj Mishra September 12, 2017

It was around 4 am and “Amit Gupta” had got up. He was thirsty. He wanted a glass of water. He picked his smartphone as he walked out of the bedroom and kept scrolling the screen to check out notifications from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

“Hey”, greeted an unknown, attractive female face on Gupta’s Facebook.

Small talk happened.

Gupta logged in and soon there was a woman on his screen.

More small talk.

“Wht do you like to do ?”

“I play tennis and go to movies.”

And then, from nowhere, the chat turned intimate.

“Do u lik to see change my dress”

“Sure”

The woman removed her clothes.

“SHOW ME URS”

She started making erotic gestures and it all appeared to be in real time.

The next thing Gupta knew he was masturbating in front of the webcam “like an oblivious fool” as he now describes it.

What followed was anti-climatic to say the least.

Sex, tapes, blackmail

“NOW AMIT SIR, STAY CALM AND LISTEN. I HAVE UR VIDEO”
“UR WIFE, reena gupta married 2010. UR SISTER MEETA BANSAL UR UNCLE NARAYAN GUPTA. U WANT THE VIDEO TO SEND TO THEM”

Gupta panicked.

“MONEY CAN DELETE EVERYTHING. normally I charge 5000 dollars, but u send me 3000 and this will go.”

Gupta isn’t a teenager or an adventurous millennial exploring fun on the internet without bothering about the consequences.

He is a top executive, a CXO with a leading technology company based in Bangalore, with a three year old daughter and homemaker wife.

(The “Gupta” name is fictitious and some details in the conversation reproduced in the visuals alongside, like email IDs and relative names, are made up. Everything else is exactly what happened.)

The incident, which happened earlier this month, has left Gupta shaken to the core.

“Please do not describe my identity even remotely because i fear they (the scammers) will come after me harder,” he sent a message through a common contact helping me with this story.

Within hours of making the ransom demand, the scammer started sending emails following up on the payment.

“Where are you now?”

“Pls let us know az soon az u trnsfr.”

Then, later in the day, the scammer shared a link of the video on a YouTube private link which was titled “Gupta masturbating to an 8 year old girl.” The intent was clear: not only would Gupta be shamed in front of his family and friends, there would also be a paedophile tag attached to him, even if that was untrue.

Gupta gathered enough courage to go to the nearest Western Union money transfer outlet. But he learns that recent government regulations do not allow such transfers to individuals. That’s when he reaches for help — more on that later.

Gupta is not alone. Last month, a finance executive based in Mumbai, faced a similar situation. The scammers threatened to share the video of the sexual act with his parents within hours if he did not meet the ransom deadline.

“I was shocked when they shared contact details of my fiancee and threatened to release the video to her,” he says. He, too, requested complete anonymity to avoid being targeted again by the scammers.

Sextortion scams, wherein a victim is duped into performing a sexual act by unknown, attractive women, is rising in India. And while women continue to be at the receiving end of revenge porn, online abuse and harassment, most of the sextortion victims are men.

Paying off the ransom is hardly a permanent solution. Both Gupta and the Mumbai finance executive continue to live in the fear of the scammers coming back, or even posting the video accidently or just for fun.

“I get up at night multiple times after nightmares about my fiancee watching the video, my marriage breaking apart. I don’t want to live with this fear all my life.”

That’s a real possibility. There are instances of marriages being torn apart. In March this year, while using the family computer, Vandana (name changed), a tech executive in Bengaluru, accidentally discovered that her husband had shared her pictures in a sexually explicit chat with an online friend.

“Someone somewhere was jerking off looking at my picture… it made me feel sick… it’s such a breach of trust,” she tells me.

Her husband, a college boyfriend who she had dated for nearly eight years before getting married in 2014, also became a victim when the scammers from the other end started blackmailing him.

“But that wasn’t my problem anymore. I decided to divorce him right after that,” says Vandana, 29.

The virtual honeytrap

Typically, it all starts with just another Facebook friend request. After the scamsters pick their victim, having sifted through all the profile details and identifying the vulnerabilities, a conversation starts. They normally pick early morning hours, but it can change depending the victim’s habits, which is closely monitored over days and weeks.

“The modus operandi is as old as scams themselves. It is similar to financial crimes such as phishing. All of them rely on basic human weakness. Dangle a bait, when someone takes a bite, reel them in and demand money to be released,” says Manjula Sridhar, an information security researcher who studies cyber crime and sextortion closely.

All sounds good as academic explanation. But how can someone be so weak to masturbate in front of a complete stranger, without even being sure if there’s indeed a real person on the other end?

In most cases, the video being played to arouse a victim, is either a pre-recorded one, or completely fake. There are enough tools available online to stream a fake webcam video including Fakewebcam and Camerasoft.

So where are these scammers based? Are there gangs based in India too?

“Hard to say without solid evidence or inside information from law enforcement officials, but I could take a calculative guess and say yes (there are India based gangs). In spite of the profiles of various ethnicity, the main player or the kingpin can be anyone, from your neighbour to some professional sitting in Nigeria,” says Sridhar.

Private experts helping victims deal with sextortion cases say that the scammers are part of sophisticated, organised gangs. “For instance, there are simple ways to trace the journey of online messages and emails by looking at the servers it passed through. But the scammers use VPNs and other channels to ensure it cannot be traced,” says Sridhar. VPN is short for virtual private networks which extend private network features even while on a public network like the internet.

“The profiles and the webcam chat itself is faked by playing a pre-recorded video so anyone can run this scam. Many of the scammers are just paid employees with fixed salaries and KPIs and the bulk of the blackmail money will go to the networks running them,” she adds.

Like with spam, the scammers assume new identities with ease resulting in many fake user IDs and screen names. There are websites such as Scamdigger that collects all fake handles and identities used for extortion and similar activities.

Many more Guptas out there

While sextortion is nothing new to report about, the instances of such cases has been rising with reports coming even from deep pockets in India. Law enforcers says this is thanks to increased mobile penetration and cheaper and often free internet data packs in the country. “There’s a definite increase in the sextortion and similar cases we’re seeing around here,” says Triveni Singh, an additional superintendent of cyber crime in Uttar Pradesh police force, responsible for maintaining law and order in India’s biggest state.

The biggest challenge, according to Singh, is that regulations governing online data don’t always apply to the social platforms because everything is stored on computer servers outside India. “Nabbing these culprits is so tough that they are beginning to thrive,” he says.

He also admits to lack of deep understanding in the police force about social platforms and the modus operandi of cyber crimes such as sextortion. “And then there are very few officers dedicated to solving these “soft crimes.” The focus is still on the hard, old world crimes.”

What complicates matters is that sextortion can be argued as consensual. “We shouldn’t call it sextortion at all — it involved two consenting adults, and there was no (sexual) exploitation,” says an Bengaluru-based official helping the police crack cyber crime cases. “It starts with consent, and is done either for revenge or extracting money.”

And while there’s no public data available on the increase in sextortion and related cases in India this year, a Microsoft study released in February 2017 did hint at the growing problem. According to the survey, 77% of Indians reported concerns on sextortion, unwanted sexual solicitation, revenge porn, and sexting. Importantly, males reported more risks (64%) over females (61%).

Meanwhile, for Gupta, the story is far from over. Three weeks after the sextortion incident, Gupta continues to live in fear. “He’s scared, completely broken — morally and emotionally,” says a person familiar with his situation.

Since seeking help from an expert, Gupta has confessed to his wife and has been able to save his marriage. He has also confided with other close friends and relatives. The attempts to track down the scammers haven’t been successful so far.

“The wounds will take time to heal, and there’s no guarantee if they won’t strike again,” says the person.

Watch this video put together by Prathibha Sastry and Manjula Sridhar to learn more about what do do if you’re a sextortion victim.

 

 


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