Online crimes like sexual exploitation and blackmailing spike amid lockdownSince the prohibitory orders were enforced, police have been getting about half a dozen complaints every day. In a reverse to earlier trends, it is men who are the victims.
Three days before the prohibitory orders were enforced in Kathmandu Valley on April 29, Kanchan (name changed) sent his wife and five-year-old son to his village.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he stopped going to his office at a Kathmandu-based diplomatic mission. He had little work and he was working from home.
He spent most of his spare time on social media sites, mainly Facebook.
One day Kanchan, who is in his late 30s, got a friend request from a woman on his Facebook page. Since he did not know the girl, he ignored it at first. But after getting repeated requests, he accepted it. The woman had an appealing look.
Soon he started to chat via text with his newfound friend, and during the nights she started sending voice messages to which he started replying to her. Then she started sending nude pictures of herself and asked Kanchan to do the same.
“For the sake of fun he complied,” said Superintendent of Police Anand Aryal who is also spokesman of the Central Cyber Bureau of Nepal Police.
But a week later, in mid-May, the woman, who was abroad, asked him to send her $700. She threatened him that if he did not she would expose his pictures and the racy conversations he had with her on social media.
He soon realised that it was a fake Facebook account.
Distressed and panicked, Kanchan called Nepal Police’s Central Cyber Bureau for help last week and shared everything requesting the police that his identity not be disclosed.
This was one among nearly three dozen cases of cyber harassment registered via the phone call at the cyber bureau in the past one month since prohibitory orders were enforced at the end of April, according to Aryal.
“We have got complaints of online sexual exploitation and harassment including threats and blackmailing after the second wave of Covid-19 in which offenders have been from inside the country as well,” said Aryal.
In the case of offenders outside the country, Nepal Police has been consulting with Interpol for investigation.
According to the bureau, it has been getting over five phone calls and at least two emails a day from people being blackmailed for large amounts of money for lack of judgement like Kanchan’s.
“Before the prohibitory orders, the bureau would hardly get such complaints,” said Aryal. “Earlier, we used to get complaints mostly from women but during the current lockdown, the trend has changed and there are many men complaining of being blackmailed.”
He said they are asked for amounts ranging from Rs50,000 to up to Rs500,000.
Complaints are being registered by high profile persons including businessmen, corporate house owners, high ranking people working for NGOs and INGOs.
“They are worried that they may be exposed and their family relationships may be endangered if the cases become public,” said Aryal.
On Sunday, the bureau issued a press release alerting the public not to accept friend requests from unknown persons.
“Some people with criminal mindsets have been misusing technology and with the use of social media they are manipulating the social media users by sending inappropriate pictures, messages and videos to lure them in indecent activities to blackmail them,” said the statement. “We request everyone to keep away from such temptations and not to be involved in indecent voice calls, video calls or texting.”
According to Aryal, people with a criminal mindset are using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Viber and Imo to blackmail their victims.
Former deputy inspector general of police Hemant Malla Thakuri sees a number of reasons behind the increasing number of crimes online.
“People in Nepal and most other countries are indoors, and most of them have easy access to the internet,” said Malla. “People are in need of money and with mobile banking, it is easy to transfer money. The pandemic has made many youths jobless, and for youths with criminal mindsets, the best way to make money is to create fake identities on social media and blackmail people.”
He said cybercrime has increased due to prohibitory orders, monotony and overindulgence in social media.
“The best way not to become victims of such crimes is to be aware and not to be in touch with unknown persons and not to accept friend requests from or reply to unknown persons,” said Malla.He warned that the issue could bring about a trigger effect whereby the emotional state is affected, often significantly, by causing extreme anxiety and distress especially because everyone is indoors.