In December 2021, Rahul, a 30-year-old resident of the Indian city of Rohtak, received a message on Facebook Messenger from a woman who gave her name as Payal.
Rahul, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his privacy, got the impression from the way Payal interacted with him and how she presented herself in her profile picture that she was a person who would easily agree to sex — a taboo in India. So, he started chatting with her and they exchanged some initial pleasantries. Payal asked questions about Rahul’s personal life: where he lived, his profession, his marital status.
About a day later, she took things up a notch and proposed cybersex over a video call. Rahul couldn’t resist. “Now what can I tell you — the other person offered, so I agreed to do it,” he told Rest of World.
But once the call was over, things took a turn. Two minutes after they hung up, Payal sent Rahul a message, asking him for money — 2,000 rupees ($26). Rahul made an excuse, saying that he hadn’t received his salary yet.
A couple of hours later, an unknown WhatsApp account sent Rahul a video of his intimate call. That’s when he realized that Payal might not be who she had said she was. He was being scammed. The person, or people, on the other side of the cybersex call had not been Payal at all — he had been duped by a pre-recorded video. Meanwhile, they had secretly recorded his side of the call.
“She stole my data. She stole my pictures, my wife’s and my entire family’s pictures, comments, my friends’ names, everything that was there [on my Facebook],” he said. “I received all these videos and pictures on WhatsApp in the next two minutes … I was terrified.”
Payal — or whoever was really behind the account — threatened to circulate Rahul’s video among his Facebook friends if he didn’t pay up. Rahul said they also tried to get more money by saying Payal would file rape charges against him. Now, they were asking for 5,000 rupees ($60).
Scared by Payal’s threats, Rahul immediately sent 5,000 rupees to the bank account whose details Payal had sent him. But the demands kept coming. Rahul turned off his phone for the day.
The demands didn’t stop. The next morning, Rahul received a phone call from a man who said he was a reporter with a news channel and that a woman had made rape claims against him; the man advised Rahul to pay another 5,000 rupees, which he did. An hour later, he got another call, this time from someone claiming to be a YouTuber and threatening to upload his video.
Rahul tried to defend against the extortion, asking his friends to call the number back and threaten police action. But the person or people on the other end of the line were undeterred. “They called yet again,” Rahul said. He paid another 2,000 rupees ($24).
“At this point in time, I bravely said I don’t have any money and you do whatever you want to … I blocked their number and [disconnected] my number as well.” The threats stopped, but the experience took a heavy toll on Rahul. “I lost 12,000 rupees ($145) in this entire scam,” he said. “I was an idiot. I think God saved me, otherwise, the situation was such that I could have even ended up dead.”
Rahul was a victim of a type of “sextortion” scam that has become more frequently reported in India over the past couple of years, especially while people had been at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. Scammers posing as women target individuals through platforms such as Messenger and WhatsApp, or specially made apps, pretending to be romantically interested. They show a video of a woman disrobing, or lure their victim into performing sexual acts on camera, which they secretly record and then use as blackmail material to ask for money. Some have even attempted to use face-swapping technology to make fake explicit photos.
Similar scams have been seen around the world. In the U.S., the FBI has reported a rise in sextortion-related scams, with 18,000 complaints received by its internal complaint center in 2021. Often, according to the FBI, these scams target children and teenagers, luring them to produce child abuse material, then extorting them either for money or for further images. There have been several reported cases of teenagers and young people dying by suicide after having been victims of such attacks.
It is difficult to gauge how prevalent sextortion scams are in India, as they are not recorded under their own crime category. The National Crime Records Bureau’s 2020 statistics recorded 2,440 cybercrimes under the general motive of “Extortion.” The true number is likely much higher, however, owing to vast underreporting. In an op-ed in March, Yashasvi Yadav, the special inspector general of police (IGP) at the Maharashtra Cyber Department, estimated that only 0.5% of sextortion cases are reported to the police and result in official First Information Reports (FIRs), largely because of the shame and stigma associated with cybercrime — and particularly sextortion. These numbers, wrote Yadav, make India “the sextortion capital of the world.”
According to law enforcement officials and lawyers that Rest of World spoke to, many of the people behind sextortion scams in India are located in specific regions of the country, often in small villages, where groups of scammers work together.
In his op-ed, Yadav wrote that a high rate of these incidents can be traced to the Mewat, Alwar, and Bharatpur regions from the northwestern state of Rajasthan. A local daily news site reports that 70% of all cyberfraud cases in India (not just sextortion scams) are carried out by residents of these regions. In the past year, police in Alwar alone have caught members of over 60 online sextortion gangs, according to a local news report. Some are under 18: Alwar police have arrested 13 minors, aged 14 to 16 years, suspected to have been involved in such scams during the first half of 2021.
But the number of alleged fraudsters and cases appears to be much more than the local police are capable of handling. According to at least one local news report, the victims in the 800-odd cases registered against these gangs hail from across India, with a significant number of victims from the southern state of Telangana, the westernmost state of Gujarat, and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Rest of World visited Semla Khurd, a village in Alwar which local police say is an epicenter of sextortion scams, and spoke to some of the people allegedly involved in such cybercrimes, as well as local residents and local law enforcement authorities. Rest of World uncovered a freewheeling network of sextortion scammers who see this as an easy way of making money, and a legal system ill-equipped to deal with this kind of crime.
Driving into Semla Khurd, a village almost equidistant from New Delhi and Jaipur, with a population of about 1,500, it’s quickly apparent that the residents are wealthier than those in some of the neighboring settlements. The temporary houses (locally referred to as kutcha, and usually made out of straw, mud, dry leaves, and bamboo) popular in the neighboring town are replaced with larger, more permanent houses with parking spaces for cars and tractors.
It’s clear that security is a concern. CCTV cameras are rigged up close to the village boundary, and many homes also appear to be equipped with cameras.
When Rest of World visited in April 2022, the village was quiet. Most of the men were away at work, leaving mainly women at home.
At Alwar police station, a local resident, who had come to protest against increasing crime in the area, told Rest of World that people involved in cybercrime scams do not generally operate from their houses, as they are aware that the police may be able to track their location. Instead, they operate from the surrounding fields. The resident was able to connect Rest of World with a couple of people allegedly involved in scamming, one of whom, Mustkeen, led the way by motorcycle to a hut in a field. The kutcha was located beneath a tree to keep it cool. Many fields nearby had similar buildings. It was clear that the fields had not been sown for a while.
The hut appeared unremarkable from the outside, but, inside, it resembled a secondhand mobile phone shop. Several people were sitting inside, constantly looking at their phone screens. They had around 20 phones between them.
The hut, which was about 10 feet wide and 20 feet long, was equipped with seven beds and mattresses. There were also chairs, some pots of water, cold drinks, bidis (an inexpensive, locally produced cigarette, usually made from slivers of cured tobacco rolled in a leaf), and some packs of playing cards. The hut had an electricity connection, which the men were using to charge their phones. As Rest of World entered, two of the men left, leaving Mustkeen, who was in his late teens, and Azad, in his mid-30s. (Rest of World is choosing to identify the two men by their first names only.)
A former truck driver, Azad told Rest of World that he had been introduced to sextortion scamming by his relatives about four years ago. He said he had been surprised to see his relatives, who had once had a transport business, abandon their enterprise and build a big house stocked with several cars.
When he asked about their sudden rise in wealth, they told him about sextortion scams and taught him the ways of the trade. Azad, who said he had only had a fourth grade education, told Rest of World there seemed to be no turning back for him after he saw the amount of money he could make from scamming.
Azad said that his entire family is dependent on cyberfraud for their livelihood. He said he has trained at least 100 other people, who go on to teach more people. “Even 8- to 10-year-olds are doing this and earning anywhere between 500,000 rupees ($6,553) to 1 million rupees ($13,105),” he claimed.
Mustkeen told Rest of World that he came from a poor family and completed his schooling in lockdown. He said he was only just learning the sextortion racket and wasn’t a big player; he just wanted to earn some pocket money.
Azad and Mustkeen explained how the scammers operate. First, they create a Facebook account with fake details and photos of a beautiful woman, downloaded from the internet or taken from another woman’s Facebook profile. They then go on an outreach spree, sending friend requests to anyone they think could give them money. As soon as their messaging request is accepted, they try to get the target engaged before shifting to WhatsApp.
“We know the chronology of replies in English and can predict what the other person would text. We win the trust first,” Mustkeen said. He usually opens with four lines in English: “Hi,” “How are you,” “What do you do,” “Where are you from.”
After the initial pleasantries are exchanged, he said, he usually switches to Hindi, one of the most widely spoken languages in India with at least 530 million speakers. If the target tries to initiate a voice call, he makes an excuse, such as saying that family may be listening.
Azad said he keeps his bases covered by asking his sister, wife, or another local woman to speak to the target, to falsely reassure them of the account’s authenticity. After that, he usually approaches them for cybersex.
Once on video call, the scammer shows the target a pornographic video of a woman in the process of removing her clothes. They record the proceedings using a screen recorder application, Azad said. Once the call is over, they send the video to the victim, threatening to expose them to their friends if they fail to meet demands.
“If the other person sends money within five to seven minutes, we come to know that they are rich and demand more from them,” Azad said. However, if someone says that they are a student and can’t pay any money, he said, they let them go. “We mostly target the rich people. Our major targets are Baniyas [people from an Indian caste often considered to be a business or merchant class] and members of other affluent classes.”
Azad said they receive the money through eMitra, an e-governance initiative in Rajasthan which allows users to receive money digitally into a bank account. He commended the efforts of the government to accelerate digitizing government services and promote online payments.
He said he offers a small commission to people who run eMitra centers. “We also use Paytm to get our payments,” Mustkeen added.
To help cover their tracks, Azad said they use stolen mobile phones from New Delhi and procure SIM cards from the northeastern state of Assam, situated on the opposite side of the country.
Azad defended their actions: “We don’t do murders. Just small cheating. That is why we don’t serve longer in jail.” Mustkeen said he earns as much as 5,000 rupees a day. But he was scared of the police taking action against the villagers. He said that most of the people involved in sextortion scams had already left the village and taken to hideouts in the fields.
For law enforcement, catching people involved in cybercrime is a constant challenge, owing to the difficulty of tracing suspects and connecting the dots when victims come from a different region. In Govindgarh Police Station, four miles from Semla Khurd, Suresh Singh, the station house officer (SHO), recalled an incident in January this year, when three police officers from the eastern state of West Bengal visited the station with the mobile phone number and location of someone suspected of being involved in a sextortion case.
The West Bengal officers were investigating the case and had zeroed in on a location in Semla Khurd. The police proposed to raid the house.
A total of 13 police personnel arrived in Semla Khurd and were met with an unpleasant surprise.
“While we were talking to a man who had come out of the accused’s house, 10 to 12 women came and started abusing us,” Singh told Rest of World. “Then, some men vandalized our vehicle.” The SHO said that a mob of about 35 to 40 people attacked them, and the police retreated.
Azad told Rest of World that the scammers had installed CCTV cameras in the village, and employed people to monitor them and warn of surprise visits by the police.
“Women from our community usually deal with the police while the men escape to the fields. That’s how we prevent getting caught,” he said. Ghanshyam Saini, 40, a farmer from Semla Khurd, told Rest of World that though the residents and local police were aware of the cybercrime rackets operating out of the village, he believed they were too afraid to stop them.
Village head Asaf Ali defended the residents’ actions. “The cops came suddenly at night and started destroying the property of residents,” he told Rest of World. “I don’t know why police came to our village.”
Ali did not deny the cybercrime allegations against village residents, but said that it was not fair to view the whole village in this light.
Soon after the raid in Semla Khurd, the police filed criminal complaints against 30 people, who were charged with a variety of crimes — some in relation to sextortion and cyberfraud, others for allegedly obstructing state work and for firing with “stone-pelting weapons” during the raid — but most fled before they could be arrested. The High Court of Rajasthan later put the case on hold.
Singh said that those involved in sextortion were “experts in this work.” Targeting people from other states means the police need to get through more red tape to catch them. “And this takes time,” he said. “Meanwhile, the accused use a fake SIM card, and fake Paytm and Google Pay accounts, which makes it very difficult to catch them.”
Rakesh Gupta, a lawyer at the Rajasthan High Court in state capital Jaipur, told Rest of World the alleged scammers aren’t afraid of being caught as they believe they are likely to be released on bail in a couple of months. It’s easy for charged cyber fraudsters to secure bail from the court as the evidence is usually not enough to convict them, he said, partly because police allege they often use stolen phones and fraudulent SIM cards, making them hard to track.
Another challenge relates to the status of cybercrime laws in India. Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court lawyer and director of the International Conference on Cyberlaw, Cybercrime and Cybersecurity, told Rest of World that a number of cybercrime attacks haven’t been brought into the Indian Penal Code (IPC). By the time the police have caught on to the fraudulent operations, the scammers have come up with new ways to cheat people, he added.
“The conviction rate in sextortion cases is 1%, so add in the absence of proper cybersecurity laws and lack of proper training for police, [and it makes] it a golden age for cyber fraudsters in India,” Duggal said.
The sense of shame felt by many victims of sextortion also has a role to play in the success of such scams, Duggal added. He said that six or seven sextortion victims approach him every month, seeking help.
Prashant Mali, a cybercrime and privacy lawyer based in Mumbai, shares a similar perspective. “The sextortion cases are happening on a massive level these days, and people are not willing to report them because of the shame associated with it,” he told Rest of World. “I receive many clients daily, but no one is ready to come on the record, or some are even ashamed of filing a case.”
Most victims, he said, don’t want to file a case out of concern that their family or society will find out about it, and just want to see if there’s a way to get their money back. He tries to encourage clients to file cases anonymously. It’s this sense of shame that also leads to devastating impacts for many victims. “Some people who are reaching out to me still get messages from the scamsters,” he said. “They also think of ending their lives if the video comes out. Some even spent their entire life savings and went into depression.”
Na. Vijayashankar, executive chairman of the Foundation of Data Protection Professionals in India, told Rest of World that while laws around harassment are applicable in sextortion cases, concerns around reputational damage are harder to remedy when, in some small towns, even talking to a woman on social media can be stigmatized. “People visit dating websites and social media, but they feel it is derogatory for them if their family comes to know about this,” Vijayashankar said. “It will have a devastating impact in the future, because everybody wants to earn money.”
Back near Semla Khurd, Singh said that the police have undertaken awareness programmes in the village to make people aware of the repercussions of their actions. They speak to elders in the village to explain the situation, and ask them to encourage their children to study and not get involved in such activities. He also urges the residents to be aware of — and understand the need to take — proper cybersecurity measures. “So, we are enlightening people,” he said.
But Mustkeen was not convinced. “[For as long as] this country will be crazy for sex, our business will keep on running,” he said.
In India, suicide prevention organization Aasra can be reached at +91-98204-66726 or at these local numbers. In the U.S., the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached by dialing 988. A longer list of helplines by country is available.