It all started with a seemingly innocuous friend request on Instagram. Soon, there would be a video call, followed by a spiral of events that made Rohan Bhasin, 33, Assistant Vice President of a Delhi-based social media marketing firm, the target of a highly sophisticated cyber fraud.
While Bhasin was lucky not to lose money to the scam, police say such phishing attacks are becoming increasingly common, the handiwork of an alleged gang of scamsters who operate at the tri-junction of Haryana, UP and Rajasthan from places such as Bharatpur, Mathura and Mewat. While there is no consolidated data on the number of such attacks, police say their increasing frequency has earned the region the notoriety of being the ‘New Jamtara’, a reference to the place in Jharkhand that is known to be hub for similar digital frauds.
On July 4, the Agra Cyber Police arrested three men from Mewat who were allegedly involved in various forms of cyber crime, including making “nude video calls to blackmail people”. Police believe that it is this same gang that targeted Bhasin.
Recalling the incident that took place on July 2, Bhasin said he got a friend request on Instagram from a woman. “You tend to meet people at various points and may not remember them. Since this person was also friends with others on my Instagram list, I added her,” said the 33-year-old.
Bhasin said the woman then sent him a Direct Messages (DMs), asking for his WhatsApp number. “I didn’t share that considering I didn’t know her personally. What was odd was that within a few minutes, she started making video calls on Instagram. Initially I ignored the calls but after seven or eight of those, I answered the phone,” he says.
“On the other side was a naked woman performing obscene acts. It took me around 15 seconds to figure out what was going on. And then, I disconnected the call,” he said.
What followed was a series of messages from the woman threatening to share his video. “I told her, ‘What are you going to share? Please go ahead and share whatever you want’.”
Police say that this is usually the start of the blackmailing process, especially if the victim appears scared or pleads to the scamster to not share her or his videos. But Bhasin says he had decided he wouldn’t give in to their tactics and deleted the person from his Instagarm profile.
By this time, it had only been minutes since he received the Instagram invite, and the harassment had just begun.
Fifteen minutes later, Bhasin started receiving messages and frantic calls from family and friends about a ‘video’ they had got. “The scamsters had taken a picture of my face from the video call I had with them and superimposed it on someone else’s body. In the video they shared, it appears as if I am having a sex chat,” Bhasin said.
His sister in New York received a collage where Bhasin’s face had been morphed with the private parts of a man and woman. “I received the morphed photo as an Instagram message from this woman. I added her on Instagram since she was friends with my brother. She also messaged me, making several allegations against my brother,” Bhasin’s sister told The Indian Express.
By now, his family and friends had got several such Instagram stories. “The scamsters had made several such morphed videos after taking a screen shot from my video call,” Bhasin said.
The same day, Bhasin gave a written complaint at the local police station in Delhi’s Defence Colony, along with screen shots of his chats. ‘Police told me there are hundreds of such cases that take place every day,” Bhasin said, adding that he took the help of cyber expert Rakshit Tandon.
“Generally, in these cases, the fraudsters record the screen when they make a video call. Later, they also make calls claiming to be police officers. People have paid lakhs to protect their reputation,” Tandon told The Indian Express, adding cyber hygiene calls for never answering a video call from unknown persons.