THE SUICIDE in Bengaluru last month of a 26-year-old MBA has put the spotlight on the growing menace of what is being described in police circles as “sextortion” by organised gangs using social media accounts.
Several days after Avinash BS hanged himself at his home on March 23, an online gang contacted his elder sister on Facebook — without realising that their victim was dead — and demanded more money to ensure that a video is not posted online or shared with friends and family.
According to police sources, this was when the family realised that the probable cause of Avinash’s death was continuous efforts by the gang to blackmail him with alleged videos of his online sexual conduct.
The victim’s sister also learnt from Avinash’s friends that he had borrowed nearly Rs 35,000 to pay off the gang that had started blackmailing him after a woman who identified herself as “Neha Sharma” established contact on social media and allegedly lured him into performing sexual acts on camera that were recorded.
On April 3, the sister filed a complaint with the K R Puram police station in the Whitefield division of Bengaluru on April 3, accusing five persons of extortion and abetment in her brother’s suicide.
Experts from the CID cyber crime cell in Bengaluru say this is among a series of new cases around the country involving organised gangs that are targeting people through social media.
In March, the cell busted a gang that targeted a 54-year-old businessman from the Nelamangala region of rural Bengaluru. The businessman made several payments but turned to the police when the gang became relentless in their demand for more to prevent an alleged video from being circulated among his friends listed on social media.
“There is a full-fledged racket to carry out these extortions. Many of the gangs involved in online fraud seem to have switched over to this activity. Very few come forward to file complaints on account of fear of the stigma from the recordings going public — even if they are fake,” a cyber crime official said.
“Citizens are requested to exercise utmost caution while dealing with any stranger on social media and should make it a practice of using the privacy controls in mobile devices as well as in applications,” Karnataka CID ADGP Umesh Kumar said.
In the businessman’s case, filed with the CID in February, the victim alleged that an unknown person, claiming to have obscene photos and videos of him, was threatening to post them on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media.
He said in his complaint that the extortionists obtained his pictures and videos without consent, “morphed and edited them in an obscene manner” and threatened to share them with his friends after sharing a copy with him.
The CID probe led police in March to Rajasthan’s Bharatpur where four persons were allegedly operating a full-fledged online extortion racket using fake online and offline identities. The CID subsequently arrested them — Sahun, Shahrukh Khan, Nasir and Shahid Anwar — from the Pahari police station limits.
The gang was involved in similar extortions of many other victims, CID officials said. “There is a rapid increase in the number of instances where attractive social media profiles are created by criminals with malicious intent. The scamsters use these fake profiles to entice and induce male victims to share their private pictures or videos which are later used for extorting money by threatening to reveal them,” said M D Sharath, SP, CID cyber crime division.
“Fake profiles with attractive photographs on dating apps, social media sites, matrimonial websites or apps are generally used by the criminals to get in touch with victims. Initially, the conversations will be normal for a few days and once confidence is established, the victim will be induced to share their intimate pictures and videos,” CID officials said.
“On getting access to these private pictures and videos, fraudsters will start extorting the victim for money. The fraudsters will threaten to upload them on the internet or share those with the victim’s relatives, family and friends,” SP Sharath said.
In Avinash’s case, the sister told police that her brother made several payments totalling Rs 35,000 to the e-wallet of a man identified as Tejas R on March 22 — a day before his death.
She has said that two days after her brother’s death, a person claiming to be “Neha Sharma” pinged her on Facebook asking if she was related to Avinash and whether she could provide his whereabouts.
The sister, who got suspicious since all her brother’s friends were aware of his death, played along and provided the phone number of a cousin. Soon, a message was received on the cousin’s phone — from an unknown number — threatening to send a video to Avinash’s friends if a final payment of Rs 21,000 is not made, the sister’s complaint states.
The sister was given the mobile numbers of four “managers” to whom money could be wired, it states. One of the messages from the extortionists read: “First send money next video delete.”