How sextortion is taking place by Yashaswi Yadav IPS
Consider the case of a public representative (MLA) of ruling Shiv Sena in Mumbai, who fell victim to sextortion in November 2021, where the cyber crook Mohammed Khan used state of the art ‘Deep fake’ artificial intelligence technology to blackmail the MLA. The criminal was arrested from Rajasthan but not before he had exploited over 300 gullible victims and extorted over Rs 20 lakh.
Equally glaring is the case of Rajasthan minister Ram Lal Jat and BJP MP Pragya Thakur in February 2022, where cyber crooks Ravin Khan and Waris Khan from Bharatpur had the gumption to threaten them with lewd videos. However, the most tragic case occurred in March 2021 when a 26-year-old MBA student in Bengaluru, BS Avinash, committed suicide after being traumatised with incessant extortion, while sex chatting with a pseudo profile Neha Sharma. He fell victim to the evil designs of the sextortionists and even paid Rs 36,000 . The suicide was abetted with unabated ransom demands, which continued even after his death.
Specially poignant is the case of former cabinet minister in Gujarat who became victim of sextortion and paid Rs 2.5 lakh before alerting the police and it was discovered that the woman with whom he was sexting was not even a woman, it was a deep-fake avatar created by cybercrooks Hakimuddin and his three relatives, who called it a ‘family business’.
What is sextortion?
Sextortion is a malicious online crime whereby the cyber criminals threaten to distribute or ‘make viral’ ,private, sensitive and sexually explicit material pertaining to the victim, if he is not furnished with sexual favours, images of sexual nature or money.
The sextortionists zero in on relatively affluent men aged 45 to 60 years , grappling with sexual monotony of mid-age crisis. Weeks or even months of digital reconnaissance missions are launched to identify targets and gather relevant information.
Fake profiles of extremely attractive woman are already created and meticulous care is taken to make them look realistic, ie ,long chronology of profile, regular updation, or regular uploading of attractive and realistic pictures et cetera. Friend requests are sent from these fake but realistic profiles to identified targets. The requests are from overtly friendly and seemingly attractive females in platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, dating or even matrimonial sites.
At this stage the technological aspects are kept in backburner and a psychological technique called ‘social engineering’ is employed to gain the trust of the gullible victim. Social engineering refers to psychological tricks used by culprits to manipulate victims through deception and fraud.
The scammers then entice and induce them to indulge in video calls of sexual orientation, usually the female accomplices of the gang are indoctrinated to indulge in lewd video calls and record them using inbuilt or downloaded screen recording apps. These recorded salacious clips then become instruments of extortion causing untold trauma to the victim.
With over 70 crore smartphones (each acting like a powerful computer in its own right), in India, the pastures for spreading the tentacles of sextortion are widespread. This coupled with extreme hypocrisy and stigma attached to sexual desires in Indian society, facilitate a congenial breeding ground to entrap the unsuspecting victims.
Sextortion is a traumatising, terrifying and dehumanising violation that feeds off victims’ shame and societal stigma. More often than not, the ordeal ends up with victim killing himself/herself.
Evolution of sextortion
The earliest cases of sextortion date back to 2006, when a lady journalist dwelling in a typical Mumbai studio apartment and inured to online chatting, fell victim to spear-phishing attack, where a malicious code called video keylogger virus was installed in her laptop.
Consequently, whatever she typed – all keystrokes got recorded in her laptop’s hard disk and transferred via email to the cyber criminal. Even her WebCam was unwittingly switched on and all images similarly transferred. All videos and data were meticulously collated and used to blackmail the gullible victim. The girl attempted suicide and was later counselled.
Similarly, another case of cyber bullying amalgamated with sextortion is the celebrated case of suicide of American teenager Megan Meyer, who hanged herself weeks before her 14th birthday. Allegedly, Laurie Drew, mother of Megan‘s classmate Sarah Drew and her neighbour, created a fake profile of a seemingly smart teenager ‘Josh Evans’, who regularly romantically chatted with Megan, and gained her trust and got privy to her extreme private pictures and issues impacting her mental space. Intense cyber bullying and threats to expose Megan as a ‘bad girl’ scarred her psyche and drove her to commit suicide.
The paradigm shift in approach towards extortion occurred with the tragic suicide of Daniel Perry, a 17 year old british teenager in 2013, owing to the traumatising effects of sextortion even after paying USD 10,000 to a Philippines-based, world‘s first sophisticated sextortion organised syndicate run by Maria Caparas, aka, ‘Queen of Sextortion’. She was a ‘Slumdog millionaire’, who rose like a phoenix from the slums of Manila to a royal mansion, which became headquarters of the world’s largest sextortion empire.
There were at least hundred well-equipped cubicles in her mansion where teenage boys were employed to ‘dress up and talk like attractive girls’ and honey trap the victims across the world. The suicide of Daniel shook the world and Interpol launched operation ‘strikeback’also christened as ‘Goya’ and arrested the ‘Queen of sextortion’ but not before she had amassed atleast USD 1 billion through the illicit racket.
The glaring irony is that ‘Archie Tolin’ was identified as the person who abetted the suicide of Daniel, he was not even a girl but a young Philippine boy, trained by Maria herself and he is still not apprehended. Maria , in-turn, was absolved of all charges and released within a year of incarceration, allegedly by bribing police and judiciary.
The poignant words of Nicola Perry, mother of Daniel are epiphanous and strike a cathartic chord – “the manner of Daniel‘s death is every parent‘s nightmare. If we are to make sure no other parent loses a loved one, then take care that your child is made aware not to share intimate pictures or personal information online”.
Thus, from 2006 to 2022 extortion has incarnated into following four avatars
First gen Sextortion 1.0: Primarily women were victims perpetrated by estranged lovers who threatened to release their intimate pictures as ‘revenge porn’. Primitive recording devices were used.
Second gen Sextortion 2.0 : Fake profiles of attractive girls were created by male scammers and a make-believe world was created with use of technological tools like voice modulation apps, which converted male voice into female voice over VOIP calls. Money mule bank accounts(bank accounts opened with forged documentation), were used to demand ransom, sexting over WhatsApp followed by strip video calls were used to honey trap victims. Screen recording, video editing, morphing apps, also emerged in this phase.
Third Gen Sextortion 3.0: During this phase, the male extortionists started employing and training beautiful girls to entrap victims. This was a pathbreaking development and catapulted sextortion to an organised crime syndicate status. Money mule bank accounts were supplanted by crypto currency wallets, which provided higher degree of impunity and anonymity.
Fourth Gen Sextortion 4.0: innovative, latest and pioneering phase, where there is no need to lure a victim or employ females to honey trap . ‘Deep-fake’ and ‘Deep-nude’ technologies have ensured that anyone can be made a victim of sextortion , without he/she indulging in any sort of online sexual talk or misdemeanour.
Deep-fake and deep-nude
The phrase deep-fake originates from a combination of ‘deep learning’ and ‘fake’. Deep learning is an artificial intelligence-based technology that juxtaposes seamlessly, the face of a victim on the face of a porn actor in a given video, exactly mimicking the emotions, expressions and body language. This is done in such a sophisticated manner that the fake video seems absolutely authentic and genuine.
The deep-nude app goes a step further and creates a seemingly authentic nude picture or video of a female victim in a matter of seconds. There is absolutely no need to source porn video of a girl matching the profile and body type of the victim, Photoshop the video clip and even then the results were not impeccable. Deep fake and deep nude apps give diabolical, instant and flawless results.
Famous Indian lady journalist Rana Ayyub, few years back was regularly getting trolled and threatened of rape on online platforms in scurrilous campaigns, owing to her iconoclast writing style.
When she opposed supporters of a child rapist in Kathua, she experienced unprecedented horrors and had to be hospitalised. A scrupulously made Deep-fake video of Rana Ayyub emerged, which graphically depicted that the lady was indulging in sexual activity like a porn actress. Her number was flashed in the video and she was inundated with thousands of calls by perverts.
The video was shared in all major platforms and reached her on her own phone as well. She was devastated and became unconscious for days. Similarly, all major celebrities have already been victims of the Deep-nude videos like Angelina Jolie, Emma Watson, Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif and the list is endless.
The perverted pleasure of witnessing famous lady celebrities without clothes drives the popularity of these apps, insensitive to the immense trauma caused. Maharashtra cyber department has already initiated a proposal for banning the aforesaid apps.
Safeguards: While sextortionists may employ all available tools to harass, embarrass, traumatise and control victims, it is high time that the demon is taken headlong and annihilated by increasing awareness and societal de-stigmatisation of the evil of sextortion.
It is pertinent to note that internet never ‘forgets and forgives’ and its reach and spread is lightning fast and enormous. Our young generation with impressionable minds should be groomed to ensure that they should never indulge in lewd video calls and if a stranger displays rush to develop intimacy, alarm bells should ring. The racketeers need to be reported and fearlessly brought to justice.