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Instant loan scam blackmails with sextortion, steals data, drives suicide

BBC investigation found cruel fraud from India and China has targeted people in at least 14 countries

SHARE Instant loan scam blackmails with sextortion, steals data, drives suicide
Illustration showing road signs pointing away from a steep dropoff.

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Profiteers in India and China have created an instant loan scam they’ve deployed so far in at least Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The scam is a particularly vicious one that includes stealing data, near-constant harassment, blackmail and humiliating victims by distributing photoshopped nudes to friends, relatives and associates, according to an undercover investigation by the BBC.

And that’s just for starters.

According to the BBC, the people who fall victim usually need a small amount of money that is conveniently made available on a quick loan app that must be downloaded to a phone or computer. Once it’s there, personal information can be accessed, including one’s contacts, photos and other information.

The money arrives quickly — minus whopping fees that were not disclosed upfront. Payment is usually due in a very short amount of time — often just a week and if not paid in that time, the interest piles on, driving up the debt, while so-called debt collectors begin a thuggish round of harassment by phone, from cruel threats of harm to actual blackmail. Sometimes they call and harass people from a borrower’s contact list, too. Borrowers are encouraged to take loans again and again, even from other apps, to settle the debt.

The debt collectors may use nude photos — real or faked — as leverage, yet another example of sextortion, which has been a problem to some degree near-worldwide.

The undercover BBC reporting found at least 60 people in India took their own lives “after being abused and threatened.”

The article makes the point that not all hassle-free loans online are predatory, “but many, once downloaded, harvest your contacts, photos and ID cards and use that information later to extort you.” Borrower beware.

Sometimes the harassment and blackmail take place even after the loan has been repaid, per the BBC, which helped place a young man in two different call centers that attempt to collect the debt or vex the debtor. There, he could film the abuse quietly. His work showed those making terrible threats and constant harangues weren’t going off script, BBC said. Their supervisors were coaching them.

In April 2022, a couple, Parshuram Takve and his wife Liang Tian Tian, “were charged with extortion, intimidation and abetment of suicide. By the end of the year they were on the run,” the article said. The investigation also led to a Chinese businessman, Li Xiang, who bragged about his “business” to people who posed as investors.

One woman’s picture — her head photoshopped on a naked body — was widely distributed. “It was shared with lawyers, architects, government officials, elderly relatives and friends of her parents — people who would never look at her in the same way again,” BBC reported, noting she has been ostracized.

A well-known pattern

Others have reported on the cruel scam, as well. In July, Indian Express wrote that a couple and their two children died by suicide in Bhopal after pressure from a loan app company that “gained access to the man’s electronic devices and leaked an objectionable photo to his contact list, police said.”

The family was in financial stress. He took out loans, then was offered an online job. He took it. “Over the next few months, the man was allegedly coerced into taking loans from the same company and his debt gradually increased.” After he missed a payment, he said his phone was hacked and “morphed pictures of me” were shared with family and contacts.

Officials are investigating the claims in the note.

Business Today reported in July on a 22-year-old engineering student in Bengaluru who died by suicide after borrowing money from a Chinese loan app and being subsequently and systematically harassed and blackmailed.

Mint has also reported on the issue, among others.

Sextortion here and abroad

Not just loan apps use provocative photos as leverage, either. So-called “sextortion” is international, including in the United States, where the targets are often teens.

The Department of Homeland Security warns that “today, predators use phones to stalk and blackmail teens on social media and dating apps. Sextortion — the act of threatening to share nude or explicit images — is more common than you may think, and cases affecting young children, teens and adults have increased exponentially in the past two years.”

In 2022, law enforcement agencies received over 7,000 reports related to the online sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, according to Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI. More than a dozen sextortion victims were reported to have died by suicide. 

The federal safety alert says boys ages 14 to 17 may be targeted by someone online posing as a teenage girl who becomes romantically interested in the boy. “It starts simply enough: A teen responds to an online request to expose parts of his body on a webcam or send a nude photo to a new online ‘friend.’ The next thing the teen knows, the new friend threatens to expose them by publicizing the photos — unless they pose for more explicit photos or send money.”

Homeland Security says to report sextortion and save chats and other messages as evidence. Never, ever pay or send more images.

The government of Australia offers advice “if someone threatens to share a nude image or video of you,” calling it a form of “image-based abuse (or ‘revenge porn’)” that’s illegal. It also notes “sextortion,” where the goal of the blackmail is money or more intimate content, after obtaining a nude photo of someone.

Revenge porn usually involves a former romantic partner who has explicit or compromising photos. After a breakup, that person threatens to share them with others.

Australia’s eSafety government page also counsels never paying, instead contacting authorities who will provide help.