There has been a significant increase in cybercrime against women, especially sextortion, during the COVID-19-induced lockdown with “caged criminals” targeting them online, say experts. The nationwide lockdown imposed from March 25 to April 14, then extended to May 3, and again extended to May 15, aims at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus that has claimed 1,147 lives and infected 35,043 people in the country.
According to National Commission for Women (NCW) data, 54 cybercrime complaints were received online in April in comparison to 37 complaints – received online and by post – in March, and 21 complaints in February. The panel is taking complaints online due to the lockdown.
Cyber experts, however, said the numbers are just the “tip of the iceberg”.
“We received a total of 412 genuine complaints of cyber abuse from March 25 till April 25. Out of these, as many as 396 complaints were serious ones from women, (and these) ranged from abuse, indecent exposure, unsolicited obscene pictures, threats, malicious emails claiming their account was hacked, ransom demands, blackmail and more,” said the founder of the Akancha Foundation, Akancha Srivastava.
The organisation works for education and empowerment of people by imparting knowledge on cyber safety. Srivastava said on an average she has been getting 20-25 such complaints daily, while before the lockdown the number was less than 10 per day. This is a “significant” increase, she said.
“This is just the frustration and anger that is coming to the fore as there is no other release right now. This is a form of frustration as they (cyber criminals) are caged right now,” she said.
“Men are morphing images and threatening women. There is a whole racket going on where women are getting these emails that your phone and laptop has been hacked, and if you don”t deposit money my account I will send your morphed images, and share it with all your contacts,” Srivastava added.
Vineet Kumar, founder and president of Cyber Peace Foundation, said specially the cases of “sextortion” have increased during the lockdown.
Sextortion is extorting money or sexual favours from someone by threatening to reveal evidence of their sexual activity through means like morphed images.
“People are getting into relationships online as they are under lockdown and sextortion cases are being reported to us,” he said. Kumar said in these times people are connecting through technology but forgetting the security component.
“Immediately after lockdown, we saw a rise in cases of misinformation, fake news and women getting duped online when they click on malware links which gets all their information on phone, turns on the camera and microphone, and captures their intimate moments. These are then used for blackmailing,” he added.
Many women do not want to make official complaints in these cases, he said.
“Cyber Peace has been receiving complaints through its channels and it has been seen that people are reluctant in filing complaints. They want us to handle things unofficially,” Kumar said.
“Whatever official figure that is being quoted is just the tip of the iceberg as a majority of women do not report cybercrime because they worry about the social stigma associated with it,” he said.
Vandana Verma, founder of InfoSec Girls, said when the whole country is locked down, people are working from home and spending a lot of time on the internet. So, even cyber criminals are becoming innovative and craftier in their techniques, she said.
“Like sending specific phishing emails or themed emails for the current COVID-19 situation to people and getting their confidential details like address, phone numbers. These emails appear to have come from legitimate sources like the government in the form of advisories when they are not at all related to the government in any form,” Verma said.
“Creation of fake profiles, cyber bullying, online stalking are bigger challenges at this time. Insensitive comments on posts are also intimidating,” she said. Verma advised that such cybercrimes can be prevented through education on technology.
“How to securely use the digital media, creating strong a password and spreading awareness on phishing emails, fake videos and securely sharing content on the internet can help a lot in safeguarding women,” she said.
NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma said often it is seen there is lack of awareness among women on where to reach out when something happens.
“There is cyber police in every district who they can contact. They can reach out to us also if they need help,” she said.
She advised women to remain careful in the cyber space. “We are talking to women on how to protect themselves in cyber space. We advice women to not share their personal pictures or details on social media as it”s not safe. Women should realise that at times people known to them can also take advantage,” said Verma.
CSC e-Governance Services India, which holds the license for providing internet services, recorded an increase in data consumption to 4.7 terabyte (TB) as on March 30 from 2.7 TB on March 10.
“Based on the growth trend, data consumption on the CSC SPV network is estimated to have increased by close to 100 per cent till date,” CSC SPV CEO Dinesh Tyagi told PTI on April 5. He said that a major spike in data consumption has been recorded since the time lockdown started.
There are more than 60 crore internet users in India and out of this about 29 crore are in rural areas.