This article is written by Niharika Goel, on the various forms of cyber crime harassment such as extortion, web jacking, phishing, stalking and voyeurism. It provides the legal provisions that safeguard victims of abuse in cyberspace and is concluded by information regarding the national cyber reporting portal and prevention tips by social media guidelines.
In a shocking revelation, two Indian companies came down to pay a hefty sum of $10 million to hackers, in order to safeguard sensitive information from an imminent exposure that was alleged to have been stolen from their computer networks. Considering the attack originated from the Middle East, and the information allegedly stolen was incriminatory, the entire scandal went unreported by both the companies, and no case was filed. Nevertheless, it prompted an unprecedented stress on cyber crimes, specifically cyber extortion, its operation and legal remedy in India. Such instances have been occurring on a frequent basis now, when another article pointed out the inability of a Hyderabad businessman to access his company’s database, owing to hackers’ encryption resulting in a demand for a hefty amount for decryption.
Across the globe, the proportion of the population having internet access has envisioned a steep rise, at an alarming rate. People have become dependent on the internet, and have made the ease of access, by sitting at one place, a habit. As per the statista report, India had 331.77 million internet users, and eventually growing to the proportion of 511.89 million by 2022. India, owing to the second largest online market bringing advancement of technology may bring ease, and related benefits, but that may just be the tip of the iceberg. The scenario has led to a massive increase in cybercrimes such as extortion, intimidation, blackmailing, stalking, child pornography and whatnot.
Cybercrime, also called electronic crime, can be defined as the crime where the perpetrators use computers, electronic devices, or a network as an object or tool to commit the crime. The crime may witness a wide range of malicious misconduct such as extortion, identity theft, credit card fraud, hacking, intimidation, phishing, illegal downloading and so on.
Blackmailing and intimidation: corresponding terms
Blackmailing can be defined as an act of threatening or coercing to reveal and publicize substantially true or false information about a particular person or people in exchange for personal, sexual, or monetary demands. It involves using the threat of physical, mental, emotional harm or criminal prosecution against the victim or someone closely related to such victim. More often than not, such crimes are carried out for personal gains most commonly for position, money, property, and sexual purposes. The Indian Penal Code or the Information Technology Act does not define blackmail specifically and is not considered an offense, thereof. However, the term blackmail runs parallel to the legal definition of extortion and criminal intimidation.
Extortion is defined under Section 383 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which provides that whoever intentionally puts any person in fear of any injury to themselves or someone else and thereby dishonestly induces such person to create fear to deliver any property, or any valuable security or anything signed or sealed which may be converted into valuable security commits the crime of extortion. Therefore, this provision under the Indian Penal Code provides punishment for situations where the blackmailer has asked for monetary or valuable security.
Blackmailing also amounts to criminal intimidation which is well-defined in the Indian Penal Code under Section 503 which provides that Whoever threatens another with any injury to his person, reputation or property, or to the person or reputation of anyone in whom that person is interested, with intent to cause alarm to that person or to cause that person to do any act which he is not legally bound to do, or to omit to do any act which that person is legally entitled to do, as the means of avoiding the execution of such threat, commits criminal intimidation. The punishment for extortion extends up to 3 years and is an offence and triable under any magistrate whereas the offence of criminal intimidation can be punished with imprisonment of either description of a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both.
Email spoofing: forgery of email header
This technique involves forgery of an email header, wherein the email is received from an ingenuine or fraudulent source. However, to the eye of the receiver, the email sounds intriguing and appears to have possessed a legitimate source, which leads to spam campaigns and phishing.
Phishing: masquerading as a reputable individual
These kinds of frauds involve masquerading as a reputed individual or entity in order to gain personal login credentials through communication channels or email. These crimes are wide ranging, and may include net extortion, trafficking, malicious code and indecent exposure. The potential harm caused by such malefaction are paramount and grievous.
The term web jacking is derived from hijacking, wherein the attackers through a fake website create fake links. The victim opens the link to a new page, wherein a message pops up when clicked on, redirects the victim to the fake page. This enables the attackers to get an entrance or to get access to the site of another, and enables him to change the information of the victim’s webpage.
Cyber harassment/bullying: a cybercrime
With the enhancement of usage of the internet, social media applications have become an integral facet of human lives. With excess usage, comes forth the vulnerability of the users to misuse, and frauds on such platforms, thereof. There can be two ways, i.e. criminal activity using a computer to commit an offence, and criminal activity that has a computer as a target. The users fail to acknowledge their vulnerability which they are exposed to while browsing the internet, uploading posts on social networking sites or storing information in the computer. At the same time, perpetrators, frauds and blackmailers use cyberspace as a platform to indulge in criminal activities to attack these vulnerable users.
Among many offences in cyberspace, cyber harassment and cyberstalking are a common phenomenon which has directly or indirectly affected cyberspace users of diverse age groups. Cyberbullying refers to bullying and harassment of any kind through electronic communication devices such as computers, mobile phones, laptops and usually involves text messages, phone calls, emails, instant messengers, social media platforms.
Cyberstalking: a socio-legal issue
The National Commission of Women has introduced a legal module on gender sensitization and the legal awareness programme has defined cyberstalking as following a person’s movement across the internet by posting messages and sometimes threatening on the bulletin boards frequented by the victim entering chat rooms frequented by the victim and constantly bombarding the victim with emails with an intent to cause emotional distress and has no legitimate purpose to his communications. Such online abuses are strengthened by the enormity that the internet offers.
This has become a socio-legal issue of recent times, resulting in incorporation of such provisions as substantive offence under the Indian Penal Code. The following are the ways hackers, fraudsters use to trap and blackmail vulnerable victims in exchange for monetary, physical or personal gains and can be termed as cyberstalking and voyeurism:
- by means of hacking webcam;
- by means of catfishing.
By means of hacking webcam
It is a lesser known fact that hackers hijack the laptop or computer webcams in order to monitor the activities of the user, and it is easily accessible to such hackers. In order to prevent such happening, make sure to cover your webcam through tape or an opaque material if not in use, and if in use make sure to not go through any compromising activity that may be defamatory if seen in public. The perpetrators may also lure such victims into video calls, and record the moments involving compromising the situation of the victim, in order to blackmail her in exchange for favors.
By means of catfishing
The perpetrator uses a decent representation of a fake account in order to convince the victim to talk to him or copies the profile of a fellow user with his photos to convincingly seem like a real honest person to lure her into sharing private pictures and videos.
Voyeurism: secretly recording a woman in a compromising position
In simple terms, voyeurism is defined as the practice of gaining sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity. If a girl or a woman is secretly recorded, clicked doing a private act such as changing clothes, any activity in the washroom witnessing her private parts is punishable under the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act, 2000 as an offence of voyeurism.
Under the Information Technology Act, 2000 Section 66E defines voyeurism as an offence irrespective of the gender of the victim, which punishes a perpetrator for violation of privacy, whoever captures, publishes or transmits the image of intimate area of any person without their consent, with prior knowledge and intention , he may be punished with the imprisonment extending to three years or with fine not exceeding two lakh rupees
Here, ‘transmission’ means to electronically send a visual image with the intention for it to be viewed by a person or persons and capture the means with respect to an image by taking video, photograph, film records or by any means. ‘private area’ means the naked or undergarment clad genitals, pubic area, buttocks or female breast whereas ‘publishes’ means reproduction in the printed or electronic form and making it available for public;
‘under circumstances violating privacy’ means those circumstances wherein a prudent person can have the reason to believe that he/she may disrobe in privacy, without holding any apprehension that an image of their private area or any part of their private part is visible to the public, despite being a public or private location .Section 354D also punishes the offence of voyeurism with an imprisonment extending to 3-7 years and with fine.
Morphing: doctoring woman’s pictures
Morphing is an act of doctoring or editing a person’s face and attaching it to the body of another person. More often than not, females come across the cyber crime of publishing or blackmailing through morphed pictures over naked bodies, in order to blackmail or upload on adult websites. A majority of female victims stay aloof from the fact that their doctored, altered and morphed obscene photographs have been uploaded on such adult websites.
Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 incriminates a person who publishes a transmitter or causes to be published or transmitted in the electronic form, any material which is less serious or appeals to the prudent trust or if its effect is such as to tend to depressed and corrupt persons were likely having regard to all relevant circumstances to reach see or hear the matter contained or imported in it shall be punished with the impression that description of a term which may extend to three years and with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees. If the perpetrator is a habitual offender the punishment becomes even stricter and the imprisonment may extend up to five years and also with fine which may extend to 10 lakh rupees.
Section 509 of the Indian Penal code punishes any gesture or an act which outrages the modesty of a woman. Whoever, with the intention to insult the modesty of a woman uterus any wod, sound or gesture, or even exhibits any object, intending the such gesture to intrude upon the privacy of a woman, and outrage her modesty, shall be punished with the imprisonment of a term up to one year, or with fine or with both.
The Chhattisgarh State Amendment of the Indian Penal Code provides Section 509A, defining sexual harassment by relative which provides provisions for sexual harrasement by relative, and sexual harrasement through electronic mode.
Sexual harassment by electronic modes – any perpetrator, who makes, creates, solicits or initiates transmission of any comment, request, suggestion proposal image or other communication that may be considered obscene, lewd lascivious filthy and indecnt through means of communication devices or any electronic mode with the intention and knowledge of causing annoyance, mental agony or distress to a woman shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment upto two years and also be liable to pay fine.
Cyber defamation: imputation against a person over cyberspace
Another crucial form of harassment in cyberspace is cyber defamation. Defamation has been incorporated as a substantially grave offence under the Indian Penal Code which provides for making or publishing any imputation concerning any person, must have been made by word either spoken, or intended to be read or signs or visible representation. Such shall be made with the intention of harming and knowledge, or reason to believe that such action would harm the reputation of a person. The question arises whether the traditional offence of criminal defamation includes cyber defamation. In an attempt to compare the traditional defamation and cyber defamation, it may be noted that cyber defamation means publishing of defamatory material against another person with the help of computers or the internet. Thus, if someone publishes such defamatory material on websites, social networking sites, or through emails with the intention to harm and lower the reputation of the victim amounts to cyber defamation.
As far as the legal provisions regarding cyber defamation is concerned, Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code provides that whoever by words or either spoken or intended to read, by signs or visual representation makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation may harm the reputation of a person shall be punished with an imprisonment which may extend to two years and fine or both. In order to incorporate cyber defamation into the traditional definition under the Penal Code, attention shall be drawn to specific words such as ‘speech; and documents’ in electronic form which has widened the ambit of Section 499 which is defamation to include even the cases of cyber defamation. The Indian Penal Code by incorporation of words through ‘signs’ and visible representation under the traditional definition of defamation, has made it conform with cyber defamation as well.
Even though the Information Technology Act, 2000 does not hold specific provision regarding cyber defamation cases, attention shall be drawn to Section 67 (punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form, Section 67A (punishment for publishing or transmitting material containing sexually exclusive acts etc in electronic form. These provisions may not address cases of defamation in electronic form directly which include sending or receiving of defamatory emails, chat room messages, audio-visual clips, distorted images etc which are indecent in nature on the cyberspace.
Sextortion: cyber blackmail for sexual favors
Cambridge defines sextortion as the practice of going to someone especially for sexual activities by threatening to publish nude photos of them or sexual information about them. It is the act of social engineering skills and emotional blackmail to cause someone to believe that their private photos, videos will be released over the public domain of cyberspace, if they do not serve sexual favours to the perpetrator.It is advisable to report the crime at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or helpline number 1-866-658-9022. It is advisable to create a comforted bond with your children, so they face no reluctance in informing you about such criminal offences. Although both genders of society fall vulnerable to crimes such as sextortion, various studies prove that the majority of victims are females.
Indian Penal Code and IT Act, 2000: an umbrella safeguard
The offence of cyberstalking was not incorporated under the Information Technology Act, 2000 when it was first introduced in the year 2000, unless the situation consequently resulted in publication or transmission of obscene material as defined under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Section 67 of Information Technology Act, 2000 punishes any such perpetrator who publishes or transmits or causes it to be published or be transmitted in the electronic form any material which is lascivious or appears to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as that tends to to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it, shall be punished with an imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees and in the point of second or subsequent conversation with imprisonment of either description of a term which may extend to five years and also with fine which may extend to 10 lakh rupees.
Besides, Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code which partially deals with the offence according to which uttering of any word, making of any sound or intrusion upon the privacy of a woman shall be punished with an imprisonment of three years and fine. Section 72 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 was also brought into effect for the purpose of safeguarding such victims and used to deal with cases of cyberstalking to an extent. Section 72 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 provides for a criminal penalty where a government official discloses records and information accessed in the course of his or her duties without the consent of the concerned person, unless permitted by other laws.
Incorporation of Section 66A was also made, in the course of time when the Information Technology Act, 2000 was amended, which punishes for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc. However, Section 66A was struck down by the Supreme court of India as a violation of right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, in the case of Shreya Singhal v Union of India decided in March 2015.
In the absence of Section 66A, e-mail communication amounting to extortion may be dealt with Section 46, Section 66, and Section 66C of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Stalking also remains an independent offence under Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code incorporated by the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 post the Nirbhaya Case. An ambit of Section 354D provides that any man who monitors the use of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication commits the offence of stalking and shall be liable for punishment under the penal code.It is a cognizable and bailable offence.
Tampering computer source documents
Any perpetrator who destroys concealer changes any computer source code used for a computer, computer program and computer system or computer network with malicious intention and knowledge, shall be sentenced upto 3 years or with the fine of 2 lakh rupees or both under Section 65.
Hacking computer system/data alteration
Any perpetrator who causes any loss, damage or causes to destroy, delete or alter any information which is contained in a public or an individual’s computer with the intention to diminish its utility or affect it injuriously commits the crime of hacking. Such crime is punished with the sentence of imprisonment upto 3 years or with fine that may extend to two lakh rupees or both under Section 66.
Possessing stolen computer resources or communication devices
If a perpetrator is found retaining, relieving or possessing any stolen computer, resources or any communication devices with the knowledge and reason to believe such object to be stolen, shall be punished with imprisonment extending upto three years or with a fine that may extend upto rupees 1 lakh under Section 66C.
Using another individual’s personal credentials such as electronic signature, password or any unique identification of such person with the intention and knowledge to use fraudulent measures shall be punished for upto three years of imprisonment or with fine of 1 lakh rupees or both.
Cheating by personation and violation of privacy
A perpetrator who cheats or tries to cheat someone using communication devices or resources personates as another person is punished with the imprisonment extending to 3 years and fine of 1 lakh rupees, whereas a perpetrator who violates the privacy of a person by publishing, transmitting or capturing images of private parts of an individual without their consent is sentenced upto 3 years of imprisonment or with fine of 2 lakh rupees under Section 66D and Section 66E.
Transmitting/publishing sexually explicit content (adult and children)
Whoever transmits or publishes any material that contains sexually explicit content or act is sentenced for imprisonment of upto 5 years or imprisonment with fine of upto 10 lakh rupees, And, in the event of consequent criminal conduct, the term of imprisonment may increase upto 7 years along with fine of 20 lakh rupees under Section 67B. Whereas, wherein the victim of such sexually explicit content is a minor is punished with 5 years imprisonment, fine of 10 lakh rupees, and may increase to 7 years and a fine of 10 lakh rupees in the event of subsequent repeated conduct.
Security from persons disseminating seditious matter
Section 108(1)(i)(a) of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 was amended to provide power to the victims to contact the magistrate directly and file a complaint about the circulation of obscene material in order to ensure quick remedy, and avoid moral policing. The provision is regarding any such obscene matter the publication of which is punishable by IPC and is made, produced, published, kept for sale, import, export, conveyed, or distributed in any form publicly or in any other manner put into circulation.
Cyber cell: no bar of jurisdiction
Section 75 of the Information Technology Act 2000 confers the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the Act thereof. The section makes it absolutely clear that whether an offence is committed outside or within India the offender shall be governed by the provisions of the Information Technology Act irrespective of the fact whether the perpetrator is within India or outside India or whether he is a citizen of India or not provided that such an offence can be drawn back to the computer system or network which is situated in India. However, under various circumstances cyber crimes are not bound by the geographical limits therefore the police officials try to avoid admitting such complaints of the victim of cyber cases due to the problem of jurisdiction.
Solution: cyber crime reporting portal
In order to prevent the hassle of an FIR and moral policing, the Government of India has established a side National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal which can be done by the following steps:
The website can be visited anonymously if the victim is concerned about their identity and apprehension of unprecedented agitation. They may visit the National Cyber Crime Reporting portal at https://cybercrime.gov.in where the complainant shall not need to provide any person information and can be resisted anonymously the crimes reported can also include child pornography child sexual abuse material sexually explicit content such as rape or gang rape.
The victim may need to provide the following information which is: category of the cybercrime, date and time of the incident, in such cases when the sexually abused video was uploaded on social media, or when the perpetrator started blackmailing, state and district of the victim platform where the incident occurred such as WhatsApp, Facebook or Instagram and the evidence of being uploaded.
All the evidence of being blackmailed such as the email received by the perpetrator or any such blackmailing messages, they may also inform the name of a suspect if any, and his or her identity which the victim feels would be helpful in the investigation of the crime in the description column. They shall also provide any other necessary detail about such suspects once the complaint is successfully registered. The complaint will be provided within a PDF which the victim can download from the portal whereas the victim can also file a complaint by providing her own personal details (if she does not wish to go anonymous) and can track the status of the complaint to registration by Indian mobile number which will be verified by an OTP. Here, the victim shall need to provide personal details such as date of birth, name of parents, spouse relationship of the complaint with the victim (if complaint is being filed by someone else), email ID etc.
Case of cyber extortion: Nerul resident held for cheating NRI via the Internet
51-year-old cybercriminal, Pranab Mitra, stunned the cybercrime investigation cell of mumbai cell with an entire bizarre fraudulent scandal of 96 Lakh rupees. Mitra, a former executive of Gujarat Ambuja cement got arrested for the offences of personating as a woman with the intention to seduce Abu Dhabi based man to dupe from him a hefty amount.The Investigating Officer Assistant Commissioner of Police J.S. Sodi, said Mitra has been remanded to police custody till June 24 and has been booked for cheating in personation blackmail and extortion under section Section 420 (Cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), Section 465 (forgery), Section 467, Section 471, Section 474 (forged electronic record) of the Indian Penal Code read with the newly formed Information Technology Act.
Mitra, the arrested perpetrator had posed as a woman Rita Basu by creating a fake email ID through which he initiated contacts with VR Ninawe. According to the F.I.R, Mitra had trapped Ninawe in a cyber relationship by luring him through emotional messages and subsequently indulging in online sexual activities since the month of June 2002. He also provided another friend’s email ID under the name of Sengupta which was again a bogus address intended to dupe Mr Ninawe. When Ninawe sent emails on the other email ID, he received a reply that Mitra had passed away, trapping him into an emotional blackmail by saying that the police were searching for Ninawe. In order to safeguard himself and create a potential defence, Ninawe arranged for a reputed advocate and deposited a few lakhs in the bank as advocate fees, which was in fact being transferred to Mitra. Mitra, also impersonated fraudulently created documents posing as the High Court and Police Officials, to extort hefty amounts of money until Ninawe finally came down to the Mumbai Police to lodge a Police case and get her arrested.
Mr Ninawe had also received emails impersonating women doctors and Kolkata Police officers as a blackmail to hush up the case. When the computer from which the email was sent was tracked down to Mitra’s home at the Ambuja cement company housing quarters in Nerul, it was discovered that all these messages were being sent from the accused Mitra. He was arrested along with two laptops ,computer scanners, credit cards and seven mobile phones, a few of them sent byNinawe himself. And, as concluded by the police officials, Mitra was the one who impersonated as a woman in order to lure Ninawe through a female voice
Tips to prevent cyber blackmail
In order to keep precautions and save yourself from such blackmailing and hijacking by the hackers, you must block your profile from public searches, and restrict the ambit of people who can find you through online search. Keep your post liberated and void of personal details and limit what people can learn about you through open internet sources. Always make sure to log out after each session of social media use and never share your social media credentials with anyone. It is advisable to not share your credentials with your partner as well. More often than not, women are cyber-attacked by their ex-partners, who want to seek revenge. It is advisable to not accept friend requests or follow requests from strangers.
You shall always beware of special web links that pop-up over various websites, one should never click on them. Such suspicious links lead to malware hijacking through which hackers intrude inside your computer, laptops or phone and dig out every personal information. It is also advisable to keep the privacy settings of your social media profile to private mode (only friends/followers) or the most restricted privacy level possible. Social media networks such as facebook allows people to lock the profile and anyone who is not added in the friend list cannot even click the profile picture of such a user. It is always crucial to acknowledge that information scattered over different multiple posts and photographs, status and comments can be put together into pieces to reveal enough personal information to enable a hacker or fraudster to steal your identity, defraud you or blackmail you.Therefore, it is prudent to use social media apps wisely and it is advisable for parents or guardians to scrutinize the use of social media apps of their minor children.
It is a matter of common knowledge that cyberspace has been taken up by a new form of crime which includes consecutive attempts by a perpetrator to contact another person thereby causing a sense of threat or coercion. There is no need to believe that there is no recourse available, if you are being threatened or blackmailed in cyberspace. The Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the amendments thereto create sufficient protection from such perpetrators. It is a matter of common knowledge that anonymity has strengthened these perpetrators, but the strict provisions and the new National Cyber Reporting Portal create an easily accessible legal remedy and legal process for the protection of victims of such cyber crimes. Cyber stalking and blackmailing is a newly coined term and has gained attention of the legislature and judiciary recently which creates a need for effective legislation and a better model as it has become difficult for the enforcement agency to deal with such cases on a regular basis.
Such crimes which lead to outrage of modesty or violation of right to privacy is a grave offence and has a far-reaching impact on the mental and physical health of the victims, although there has been very limited research on the impact of such cases on the victims. However, it is not a long-drawn conclusion that such offences are grievous in nature, as they put at stake the reputation of the victim and thus, shall be dealt with due diligence and caution. It is also essential to hold law that specifically defines and punishes blackmail, sextortion as these crimes may witness a steep rise in India, through the era of digitalization. It is important to train and appoint responsible officers to handle such cases with due diligence and urgency, to be able to trace, track and arrest such criminals/hijackers, and simultaneously be empathetic towards the victims.
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