Tech

My Facebook “Friend” Made a Sex Video of Me, and Then Blackmailed Me

“I believe my video is probably still out there, circulating somewhere in the dark web.”
September 16, 2021, 12:47pm
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Facebook deactivated. Check.

Instagram deleted. Check.

WhatsApp blocked. Check.

Mobile SIM card destroyed. Check.

Despite checking all the boxes meant to rinse off his digital footprint, Raghav still feels anxious when he gets a call from an unknown number. 

The 24-year-old who lives in Siliguri – a city on the foothills of the Himalayas in the state of West Bengal – is one of the victims of a sex extortion scam, which targeted scores of Indian men during the COVID-19 induced lockdown. Raghav’s name has been changed upon his request because of the sensitivity of the matter.

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The COVID-19 pandemic changed “the way we internet,” studies have revealed. Stuck at home, and with schools, restaurants, movie theatres and even public places shut, most of us moved our lives online. 

But so did the scammers.

India is no stranger to phishing scams – be it emails with links to fake websites to steal credit card data, blackmailers claiming to have hacked into the victim’s web cam while they were watching porn, or using victims’ faces in deepfake porn.

Raghav, who works as a salesperson in a clothing store, is one of thousands who’ve fallen prey to these scams during the pandemic.

On July 26, he got a friend request on Facebook from a woman named Divya Sarma. “Her account looked genuine to me because we had two mutual friends: a female colleague and a distant relative,”  he said. “Her profile picture, wearing a salwar kameez and with her family, also looked real. We started chatting on Facebook messenger and, in a couple of days, exchanged WhatsApp numbers. Our casual conversation soon turned into sexting.”

It didn’t take long for the scam to manifest, though.

“I still feel anxious to speak about what happened on the dreadful night of July 30,” he said, the apprehension and unease palpable in his voice. We had met at a local cafe to talk about what happened, and even there, he preferred to keep his face mask on. His eyes darted around nervously, and he was worried about the cafe’s CCTV cameras. However, talking about what happened next, he said, was his way of trying to make sure others don’t fall into the same trap.

“My new Facebook friend texted me for a video call around 10 PM,” he said. “I answered it, and on the other end was the woman from the profile picture. She was fair and looked tall. She seemed to be in her early 30s and spoke in Hindi with a north Indian accent.”

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Things took a different turn well into the conversation.

“She started feeling herself, and asked me to strip for her too. After a minute, I could only see her masturbate; her face was not visible. I also did the same but my face was visible. I think showing my face was my biggest mistake.”

An hour later, Raghav got a video on his WhatsApp which showed him naked and masturbating, with the woman’s face in the corner of the frame blurred. 

“I was shocked to see the video and immediately deleted it. In a few seconds, though, I got a WhatsApp call from an unknown number. I answered it only to have a man on the other end of the line threatening to expose the video if I didn’t pay up Rs 5,000 ($68). Else, he said, my video would be uploaded on YouTube and shared with my Facebook friends.”

In panic, Raghav quickly hung up and blocked the number.

“I could not sleep that night. I felt guilty and ashamed. I also felt helpless, so the first thing I did in the morning was call my brother-in-law for advice.”

As they discussed what to do next, Raghav received a Whatsapp message from yet another unknown number, which showed a screenshot of the video being uploaded on YouTube. This was followed by yet another phone call. “This time, the person [verbally] abused me and asked me to transfer the amount immediately. I did nothing as instructed by my brother-in-law. I just blocked the number and switched off my phone.” 

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He then deactivated his social media accounts and got a new phone number. He is staying off Facebook and WhatsApp for now, and though the scammers have not been able to track him down, Raghav is perpetually worried about the video leaking out. “I know the scamsters can’t reach me now, but I believe my video is probably still out there, circulating somewhere in the dark web.”

Not too far from Raghav lives Krishna, a 42-year-old divorcee from Gorubathan, a town that lies around 60 kilometres from Siliguri. “Krishna” is an alias, too, to protect his identity.

Krishna’s story is a lot like Raghav’s – he was honeytrapped into cam sex over a WhatsApp video call, too. 

“It all happened very fast,” he told VICE. “From the Facebook friend request to cam sex, everything happened in four days, but it has left a scar for a lifetime.”

Krishna also refuses to report the incident to the police.

“I run a grocery shop in a small village where everybody knows each other. I fear my family might find out about it,” said Krishna, who was asked to shell out an amount of Rs 4,000 ($54) in late June. 

“For a week, I got threat calls and messages from different unknown numbers. On a friend’s suggestion, I blocked all my social media accounts and changed my number, and I have not received any extortion calls since.”

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Police have narrowed down on an alleged phishing and sextortion gang that operates at the tri-junction of the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. The tri-junction location creates a “black spot” for mobile networks, where the presence of multiple telecommunication towers makes it difficult to trace the exact location of a device. 

Police say such attacks have not only become increasingly common, but also signal a new form of phishing. The extorted money is routed through multiple payment gateways and online wallets, creating a maze of transactions that become difficult to trace. 

“When sextortion victims call my office, the first thing they say is that they made a big mistake, and there is a lot of fear and guilt in their voice,” Tenzing Loden Lepcha, the superintendent of police with the crime investigation department (CID) in Sikkim, told VICE. “They fail to understand they have been trapped and are victims.” 

Lepcha said his office has received over 50 complaints of sextortion after the second wave of COVID-19 lockdowns. “Complainants are mostly from working sections of the society between the age group of 30 to late 50s, and the extortion amount usually ranges from Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000 ($68-$270).”

Police have busted scores of such sextortion scams over this pandemic year. In a country like India, though, the all-pervasive “log kya kahenge? (what will people say?)” sentiment often means victims like Raghav and Krishna silently bear the torture of finding themselves on the wrong side of technology. 

The effect can leave deep scars.

“I felt like finishing my life as this video clip took a massive toll on my mental health,” Krishna said. “But I decided to deal with it thinking of my daughter who would’ve been orphaned without me.”

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