Promila* was 16 when the attacks started on her Facebook account. It began innocently, she thought: a simple message in her other account from a faceless profile saying one thought she was beautiful. Promila never said anything to her parents because she wasn’t supposed to be on the social media platform.
A week later, the messages began increasing in volume and intensity. The person no longer thought she was “pretty”, but a “snob”, a “s***”, and told her that he’d “get you to being such a stuck-up b****”. She blocked the account on Facebook. But, minutes after she did this, another faceless account started sent her a message.
“U thnk you lose me like this? ill make ur life hell, b****.”
That’s when Promila decided to tell her mother Aastha*.
“My daughter was shaken,” Aastha said, speaking to HT. “We were angry she hadn’t listened to us and made a profile on Facebook behind our backs. But, she was so shaken then that scolding her was not our priority.”
They went to the nearest police station and registered a complaint. That was three years ago.
But, before that, Aastha made Promila delete her Facebook account. “I’ve always been wary of these platforms,” the mother said, adding that she had some idea that her daughter was on the platform but “who can control everything a kid does these days?”
A day later, Promila’s friends got a request from a new profile with her picture and name on it. Most of them accepted, she recalls. “It was the same photo that I used to use and all the information was the same as well. Only my best friend called me up to ask how come my parents had let me come back. And then I was like, I’m not on Facebook!”
62% teens at risk
According to the 2016 Norton Security Report, over 62% of Indian teenagers are at a high risk of being cyber-bullied or stalked on online social media platforms. A little over half of Indian adults believe that their kids could come to harm online.
As the number of Indians on the internet increases, NCRB data shows that incidences of cyber stalking are also on the rise. From 99 cases registered under the IT Act in 2007, the number rose to 105 in 2008, the next year the number of crimes was at 139. The numbers have only spiked with 758 cases being registered in 2014.
Aastha says she was one of them. “We were careful about her online presence, but we weren’t very strict. I mean, teenagers don’t listen anyway. Her friends were on FB, Instagram. Our wifi password was my husband’s phone number. I’ll be honest: we just thought something like this could not happen to us. It happens to other people, you know…”
The police registered Promila’s complaint under the Internet Technology Act 2000 for crimes of cyber-stalking and impersonation through creation of a fake profile. Then the family waited. Two years, they prayed daily for the police to catch the faceless terror stalking their lives.
“It felt hopeless at times,” Aastha recalls. In those two years, the fake Promila profile was shut down because of the family’s complaints 20 times, the mother recalls. “As soon as we complained about one, another profile would pop up.”
Messages containing cuss words and abusing the receiver were sent by this profile to all of Promila’s friends, then Aastha’s friends, and finally, to colleagues of Promila’s father, Amit — a well-to-do businessman.
“I’m a big s*** because my father touches me,” said one message that went to a client of Amit, he recalled.
Response can be fast
For the South Delhi family, it felt like the police were twiddling their thumbs. Only they were not. Speaking to HT under the condition of anonymity, the Investigating Officer of Promila’s case recalled how he put in his best efforts to find the culprit.
“Arre, bacchi thi…of course we tried our best. Who wants their daughter to go through such abuse? I have a child at home. I understood their problem. We wrote to Facebook to trace the accounts, and no one would respond.” The police station ultimately asked the cyber cell for help, the IO said. “Their expertise was there on such matters.”
Deputy Commissioner of Police (cyber crime) Anyesh Roy says that police stations are now equipped to handle online offenses, but they do come to the cyber cells for technical help.
“Some platforms, like FB, know the cyber cell officers as they deal with them more regularly than the police. They know our emails — like .gov or .nic.in — and so, perhaps that is why, they respond faster to our requests for information.”
Roy said online platforms had a hierarchy and the response was “especially fast” if there was imminent threat to life.
The IO confirms this as his experience. “Well, we got information in just one month.”
Stalkers are known faces
The fake Promila turned out to be a boy of 18 who lived in the family’s neighbourhood. In fact, it was a boy Promila knew. “The boy had seen the girl in the market; they knew each other. It wasn’t exactly friendship, but acquaintance,” the IO recalls of the interrogation of the suspect.
Roy confirms that in such fake profile and bullying cases, the victims know the culprits. “In fraud cases it is usually strangers, but in these kind of cases (fake profile creation) usually the perpetrator knows the victim. It’s personal.”
According to the latest NCRB data, 98% of all those accused of cyber-stalking/bullying are men under the age of 30. Roy says even in the capital, the accused are usually “men who are between 20 and 30 years old.” NCRB also notes that revenge, emotional motives like anger and wanting control, and outraging a woman’s modesty accounted for 1,734 of the 7,003 cyber crime cases in 2015.
Cyber law expert Pawan Duggal sums it up. “Stalking and cyber bullying represent twin sisters of harassment in the cyber space. They are being done increasingly by people who are choosing to use this area to harass the person who is either known to them or whom they are infatuated with. Most of the time cyber stalking takes place to hurt an individual or to get retribution. Unfortunately, the law is a mute spectator as cyber stalking continues to rise.”
* Names changed