Digital Despair: How Cyberbullies Push Women to the Brink

Digital Despair: How Cyberbullies Push Women to the Brink

Agnes, a young woman from Area 47, experienced an innocuous moment that would soon unravel into a life-altering chain of events.
 
It was a Sunday, and she stood in her kitchen, engrossed in her daily routine. The alert tone on her phone interrupted her activities, signaling the arrival of a new notification. Little did she know that this seemingly ordinary message would set off a cascade of consequences.

The message appeared on WhatsApp, accompanied by a profile photo (DP) of a friend she had once been close to. Agnes’s heart warmed at the thought of reconnecting with an old companion. But fate had other plans.

As she opened the message, Agnes unwittingly stepped into a web of intrigue and danger. The life of a young lady was about to be turned upside down. Depression, stress, and even suicidal thoughts would haunt her, all stemming from this seemingly innocuous interaction.

Agnes’s story serves as a stark reminder of how technology, even in its simplest form, can wield immense power over our lives. A single message, a long-lost friend—these seemingly mundane elements can alter destinies and leave lasting scars.

“So they approached themselves as somebody who I used to know, but I had lost their number. Then we started chatting. They started telling me, as you know I run a couple of businesses, so one of them is something that I would want to introduce you to if you are interested.

“And I asked what it is all about. So, the person explained that, you know I shoot adult films, and I sell them out to people outside the country.

“So he said, what I need is either a girl I can record with, or if you prefer, you can just record something and it will be put up for sale. You’ll receive payment for your work.

“However, he mentioned that if you choose to send pictures, they need to show everything, including your face. These images are sold to a live audience interested in seeing African girls. For pictures, they offer a payment of 5 million kwacha, but if it’s a video, the compensation increases to 10 million kwacha,” Agnes recalled.

Agnes, a young graduate in Malawi, finds herself among the thousands of unemployed graduates desperate for employment. The relentless struggle to make ends meet has driven her to explore entrepreneurial ventures while she continues her job search.

The harsh reality of high unemployment rates and the ever-increasing cost of living has left many young people in dire straits, willing to take drastic measures.

In Agnes’s case, desperation led her down a treacherous path. A man promised her a staggering sum of 10 million Kwacha—a potential lifeline—simply by sending naked pictures and videos.

Hopeful that this could be her long-awaited breakthrough, Agnes agreed to the deal. Little did she know that she was stepping into a web of deceit and danger.

The man introduced her to another individual, posing as a buyer from Asia. Agnes dutifully sent samples of explicit content, including her own face, believing she was on the brink of financial salvation. But reality soon set in: she had unwittingly entangled herself in a nightmarish situation.

As she waited for the promised money, the tone shifted dramatically. The perpetrators began to change their tune, leaving Agnes trapped in a desperate struggle for survival.

"They informed me that many people in town engage in this activity, protecting their clients and themselves vigorously. They cited examples of influential individuals on social media—some celebrities and others well-known—who allegedly earn money through similar means.
 
“Intrigued by the names they mentioned, I felt at ease. However, my financial situation was dire at the time. Consequently, I complied with their request to record something.

“Before recording, they asked for my bank details. Their rationale was that I need not send everything at once. Instead, I could send a portion initially to demonstrate my commitment. Once they received it, they promised to deposit half of the agreed-upon payment.

“Later, upon receiving the complete recording, they would deposit the remaining balance. After complying, they criticized the clarity of my recording, urging me to redo it. Despite my best efforts, they remained dissatisfied. Eventually, they abruptly changed their tune, labeling the entire situation a scam. Now, they threaten to leak my pictures and videos," Agnes said.

With the scammers now in possession of her intimate photos, they ruthlessly demanded that Agnes pay them 800,000 Kwacha to redeem herself. Each day, their relentless harassment intensified, threatening to expose her naked pictures on popular Facebook pages and leak them via WhatsApp.

Agnes, desperate and cornered, initially paid 150,000 Kwacha through Airtel Money, hoping it would appease them. But the extortionists persisted, unyielding in their demands. Isolated and overwhelmed, Agnes withdrew from her friends, contemplating the unthinkable.

For three agonizing weeks, the torment continued. She blamed herself, trapped in a cycle of fear and despair. Finally, after a month, she confided in a close friend, who urged her to seek help.
 
At the police station, Agnes discovered she was not alone. An investigating officer revealed he had already handled nearly ten similar cases. His advice to her was stark: accept reality.

“After a month, I noticed that this person won’t leave me alone. That’s when I confided in my best friend. I explained that I was dealing with this situation because of my financial situation. Without hesitation, she advised me to go to the police.

“She recognized that I was being blackmailed and extorted, and she assured me that people like that don’t stop easily. She shared her own experience: someone in her life had threatened to leak her intimate photos if she broke up with him. She took immediate action and went to the police,” Agnes said.

The Malawi Police Headquarters Cyber Crime Unit has been grappling with an alarming surge in cases where unsuspecting individuals fall prey to a cunning and devastating scam.

Their modus operandi is insidious: exploit victims’ vulnerability, coerce them into compromising situations, and then hold them hostage for financial gain. Most disturbingly, many victims suffer in silence, their voices stifled by fear and shame.

Mary, a resident of Area 25 (a pseudonym to protect her identity), became ensnared in this web of deceit. When we interviewed her in June, she had spent three agonizing weeks confined to her home, unable to face the outside world.

Unlike Agnes, whose intimate photos remained relatively contained, Mary’s pictures were splashed across Facebook and WhatsApp, a cruel violation of her privacy.

The scam unfolded when one of the perpetrators posed as Mary’s best friend. Using her friend’s photo as a decoy, the scammer claimed to have a connection in Botswana seeking a girlfriend.

Innocently, Mary exchanged contacts with this supposed friend of her friend. Little did she know that she was about to be drawn into a sinister underworld.

The scammer introduced Mary to a lucrative business proposition: selling naked pictures and videos. The bait was irresistible—a promise of instant payment: 800,000 Kwacha. But it was all a ruse, a trap set to ensnare her.

Through Mary’s case, investigators have uncovered a disturbing pattern. The leaking of explicit content extends beyond her experience.
University students, both from public and private institutions, have fallen victim to this same scheme. The scammers maintain a price list: different fees for different categories—married individuals, singles, businesspersons, and even faith leaders. Those who refuse to pay face a grim fate: their private moments exposed on popular Facebook pages.

Mary, a single woman, was instructed to pay 200,000 Kwacha. Had she been married, the price would have doubled. But Mary’s financial situation didn’t align with their demands. Frustrated, the scammers escalated their cruelty, sending her compromising photos to her relatives and parents.

“On that day, I felt powerless. I could not imagine why I needed to live this life. It was very painful to imagine that my relatives, my friends, and worse yet, my parents, had seen my naked pictures,” said Mary.

Phycologist Ndumanene Silungwe from St. John of God Hospitaler Service in Lilongwe says victims of this type of scam could end up taking their own lives.

“We are likely to see the possibility of isolation and withdrawal. It is possible that others might not want to participate in social gatherings they are accustomed to, such as school. Additionally, the impact depends on who else has had access to similar materials.

“Assuming that some of these materials have reached their social circles, people may not necessarily view them with compassion. Instead, there is a likelihood of blame directed toward them, rather than sympathy,” said.

The scammers not only harm their direct victims but also employ deceptive tactics. They assume false identities, often using other people’s images. One such case involves Ibrahim Suwedi, a prominent businessman in Lilongwe.

According to Suwedi, he discovered through both the police and several victims that scammers were using his name: “You know, in business, a reputation is very important. So when people think you are a scammer, whatever business you are going to approach them with, they don’t buy it. And even in the community, they think everything I have is because I scam people around.”

Peter Kalaya, the National Police Spokesperson, has reported that the police have taken action against these scammers. Some suspects have been arrested, and others have faced charges in court. However, specific statistics and detailed information about individual cases remain undisclosed.

“As the Malawi Police Service, we are handling some of the cases, meaning that people are coming forward to report. When such cases are reported, we follow up, investigate, make arrests, and bring those responsible to book.

“I should add that, looking at what we observe on social media and the complaints we register, I can say that a lot of people are not coming out to report these cases,” he says.

On Facebook, there are pages like “Who Knows Him Ends in Tears” that frequently share photos of women whose intimate videos have been exposed. The phrase “patuluka kena mwakaona?” is commonly used to announce the release of new pornographic content on these pages. For instance, over the past three days, this page has posted six photos of different women, revealing their naked images.

Immaculate Maluza, a human rights lawyer, asserts that posting someone’s photos without their consent and distributing pornographic material constitutes a criminal offense. However, she emphasizes that the country must make substantial investments to enhance the cybercrime-fighting capabilities of the Malawi Police Service.

“When it comes to investigations, we do not have capacity. By capacity, we also mean the technology itself. So, you have the technical aspect of it and also the personal aspect of it. So you need somebody who is very tech-savvy but also has the equipment.

“For example, in other countries, if you are going to track an IP address, you have software or systems that can track a phone or the software on the phone or computer to find the specific person who perpetrated that violence. And I don’t think we are there yet,” Maluza observed.

The Minister of Gender, Jean Sendeza, has expressed shock over this distressing situation. She has issued a stern warning that the government will not tolerate any form of cyber-harassment directed at women or any other individuals.

“As a god-fearing nation, we will not allow such activities. A society that is rotten is not allowed; cyberbullying and using digital platforms in this manner are not allowed.

“As a minister, I am very saddened, and I would like to stand with all the women that have gone through this type of victimization. The law should take its course,” the minister said.

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Last modified on Saturday, 30/03/2024

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