The gang has a history of blackmailing closeted gay men.Image used for representational purposes only. Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images
Four members of a criminal gang have been arrested in the Indian city of Ahmedabad for secretly filming and blackmailing a man after luring him through the LGBTQ dating app Grindr. The case is the latest in a series of sextortion crimes targetting the country’s queer community through online dating apps.
According to police, the victim was called to a hotel after one of the accused men befriended him through video calls. Upon his arrival, the gang secretly shot an explicit video of the victim and then threatened to release it on social media.
In exchange for their silence, the group extorted the victim for minor sums of cash and a gold chain. They attempted to extort a further $6,000 from him before the victim reported them to the police. Police arrested the suspects on 26 July and charged them with extortion, as they continue tracking down a fifth suspect.
The gang has a history of blackmailing closeted gay men. “The accused gang had blackmailed several men in the past, who have shown interest through the Grindr app and other social media websites,” a senior official of the Anand police told the Indian Express. Police have seized a car used by the suspects along with six mobile phones, knives and cash.
Despite the overturning of a regressive colonial era law that criminalised consensual gay sex in 2018, many queer individuals remain closeted in India out of fears of ostracism and harassment. Activists say that the vulnerabilities of the queer community have been increasingly taken advantage of by scammer gangs using online dating apps.
“It is a big issue and they are able to successfully scam so many people because of homophobia that exists in the country, where a lot of people are not able to be open about their identities, and that fear is then exploited by these criminals,” Indrajeet Ghorpade, a LGBTQ rights advocate from the group Yes, We Exist India, told VICE World News.
However, many incidents go unreported due to fears of homophobia, hostility and even indifference from police. In a number of cases brought to Ghorpade’s attention, victims said they had negative experiences reporting to law enforcement.
“The police were very dismissive. They mocked [the complainants] and subjected them to further homophobia. In fact, the police refused to recognize it as a crime,” Ghorpade said. As a result, many victims instead prefer seeking help from private cybercrime experts who charge them exorbitant fees for their services.
“Interestingly, this is how the victim gets duped for the second time by such so-called ‘experts,’” Mukesh Choudhary, a cybercrime consultant for local intelligence and law enforcement agencies, told VICE World News.
Grindr and other dating apps have been frequently used by gangs to assault, rob, blackmail and extort India’s queer community. In February, three men were arrested in Ahmedabad city for robbing and beating at least 15 men after connecting with them on Grindr. In 2020, at least 100 men in the Indian city of Gurugram, including CEOs and senior corporate executives, were lured, robbed and blackmailed by a gang who took explicit photos of them after they met on the same app.
“Grindr takes the privacy and safety of our users extremely seriously. We encourage our users to report improper or illegal behaviour either within the app or directly via email and to report criminal allegations to local authorities and, in these cases, we work with law enforcement as appropriate,” a Grindr spokesperson told VICE World News in a written statement.
Cybercrime experts say that sextortion crimes targetting the queer community have risen since the onset of the pandemic due to increased social media usage during lockdowns. Petty criminals looking for a quick buck have thus benefitted from entrenched attitudes of homophobic intolerance.
“Such scams are highly profitable in the local context. On average, scammers may get over 50,000 INR ($625) to 100,000 INR ($1251) per day through such scams, so people who want easy money without much prior knowledge or investment tend to do such scams,” said Choudhary.
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