Why rape and kidnapping are the latest avatars of cybercrime | #cybercrime | #infosec

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NEW DELHI: If you follow cybercrime flicks, chances are you would have heard of Jamtara. Jamtara is a small town in Jharkhand that attained notoriety as the phishing capital of India after hundreds of incidents of cyber fraud across the country were traced back to it. The swindlers even inspired filmmakers. A web series featured on Netflix was titled ‘Jamtara – Sabka number aayega’ where a group of small-town young men run a lucrative phishing operation.

With cybercriminals constantly exploring newer avenues, we look at two disturbing global trends — cyber kidnapping and cyber rape — rearing their heads, though not yet prevalent in India.

Cyber kidnapping

The terms cyber and kidnapping may not appear to sit together, but fraudsters have found ways to make that happen. Although virtual kidnapping takes many forms, it is always an extortion racket — one that tricks victims into paying ransom to free a loved one they believe is being threatened with violence or death. Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers do not hold anyone in their captivity. Instead, through deceptions and threats, they make victims believe the abduction has actually taken place and coerce them into paying a quick ransom.

A sensational case came to the fore last month when a Chinese family of a foreign exchange student studying in the Utah state of the US was extorted a whopping $80,000 by scammers who tricked them into believing that their son was kidnapped. In reality, the Chinese student had just isolated himself on the instructions of the criminals.

It all began on December 28 last year, when Riverdale Police in Utah was alerted by a high school regarding the kidnapping of a foreign exchange student, Kai Zhuang. The school reported to the Riverdale Police that they were contacted by the victim’s parents in China who told school officials that their child had been abducted.

The family received a photograph of Kai Zhuang and it appeared he was being held captive and was in danger. The kidnappers demanded ransom and the family subsequently transferred $80,000 (`66 lakh approx) to bank accounts in China due to continuous threats from the kidnappers.

The Riverdale Police contacted the FBI, which gave them the big picture of several cases with a similar modus operandi that had recently occurred in the US. Zhuang was never kidnapped and was later found in a tent about 40 km north of Brigham City where he had isolated himself on the directions of the scammers.

In cyber kidnapping, fraudsters first identify targets who are probably staying far away from their families. In the second step, a call is made to the person who is going to be virtually kidnapped. The kidnappers or cyber fraudsters use multiple ways — threatening and blackmail — to make their target isolate themselves for some time. The third step is contacting the family of the victim, who are told that their loved one has been abducted.

The tech-savvy scammers then send the family voice notes of their loved ones crying for help and sometimes even writhing in pain. They threaten the family to immediately transfer the ransom if they want to see their ‘abducted’ person alive. The final shot is an AI-generated picture of their loved one showing him/her in ‘captivity’. More often than not, the family succumbs to the intimidation.

With cases of cyber kidnapping getting regularly reported in the US, several law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), have issued advisories educating citizens against the rising trend.

Cyber rape

Cyber rape may be defined as an act of forcing an unwilling sexual act on someone in a virtual environment. It could involve a non-consensual touch, exposure or manipulation of the character representation.

Violence against women including in an online environment can take many forms like cyber harassment, revenge porn, threats of rape and can go as far as sexual assault or murder. And the chances of the perpetrator erasing his digital footprint to evade the law are high.

Cyber violence affects women disproportionately, not only causing them psychological harm and suffering but also deterring them from digital participation in political, social, and cultural life.

Technology-facilitated sexual violence is a violation unique to the digital age that extends the analog-era rape culture. Recently, a young girl in the UK faced a heinous crime virtually after which the police began its investigation, perhaps for the first time in history.

According to media reports, the victim, who is under 16, was wearing an immersive virtual reality (VR) headset and in a virtual room when a group of men sexually assaulted her virtual avatar.

The teen is said to have experienced psychological trauma similar to that of someone who has been physically raped. There is an emotional and psychological impact on the victim that is longer than any physical injuries.

This is not the first case of assault in the metaverse. Multiple instances of women being virtually groped, harassed and assaulted have been reported. But it is decidedly the first time the police are investigating something like that, starting a debate about whether a virtual rape should be considered a equivalent to rape in the real world.

Concerns about the feasibility of prosecution under existing laws, which revolve around physical touching in a sexual manner without consent, have been raised by many. This has even prompted discussions about the allocation of police resources, particularly given the substantial backlog of real-world rape cases.

Apart from the metaverse, chat rooms created by individual users of the Internet can run the entire gamut of sexual scenarios and violence, especially against women.

Experts say that women can counter such use of the Internet by chasing abusers out of chat rooms. Users can also insist that the Internet providers prevent users from changing their online names and profiles at will. This would prevent behaving abusively under one name and then taking another name as a cover.

As this form of crime is still fairly new, it remains to be seen how such violent role-playing will affect sexual relationships and the larger goals of ensuring male respect for women. The Internet does make it easier for disturbed people to find each other or to identify unwitting victims.

Can India’s new law act as a deterrent?

The recently enacted Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS) 2023 classifies cyber crimes as organised crime. Experts feel that the BNS can provide impetus to deal with emerging threats of cybercrime. “The significant aspect of BNS while dealing with cybercrime is its inclusion within the ambit of ‘organised crime’. For such offences, the punishment is to be not less than five years and up to life imprisonment, along with fine, which will not be less than `5 lakh,” advocate Kumar Kislay, an expert in cybercrime, told this newspaper.

He said the BNS integrates provisions of the IT Act with prescribed punishment for offences. “For instance, offences relating to forgery, creation of false documents etc., include electronic records and have been made punishable,” he said, adding the new law can act as a deterrent to the rising cybercrime.

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National Cyber Security