I’m a Bangalore-based peer counsellor for LGBTQIA+ communities and have operated a telephone helpline for more than 20 years. Today, I am haunted by three big amounts. Let me write them down here:
- INR 95,000 (ninety-five thousand rupees)
- INR 8,50,000 (eight lakhs, fifty thousand rupees – for the uninitiated) and
- INR 33,00,000 (thirty-three lakh rupees, for people who lost count of the zeros).
These amounts were individually spent by three people who had called the helpline to ask for support. The money was spent in three, separate incidents that occurred over three months. The cases involved young queer men (the first one—32, extremely closeted and living with his family, the second one, a pair of friends- 21 and 27, and the last one—29, mostly closeted and living in a joint family). So, why did these young men spend all this money? Because they were trying to ‘save’ their future partners from prison. Specifically, they were saving their boyfriends by paying fines and other costs to Customs Officers in the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport, New Delhi.
The way they got into these situations is a bit of a long story. But the modus operandi is a familiar one. Let’s say you are a young, queer person. You chat with someone from another country (usually UK, US or Canada) on a dating/cruising app like Grindr, Blued or PR. You slowly fall in love with the hunk (who has a great profile picture) over a short period of time during which he gains your trust and returns your affections, sentiment for sentiment. You start dreaming about your future life together and hope that you will meet him soon and begin finally living your happiest moments.
Then, out of the blue, he says he’s coming to India to meet you and take you back with him to his country. Or maybe, he will live with you. Or maybe, he’ll take you on a vacation. And wouldn’t you want to meet him in his five-star hotel and consummate the relationship? Of course, you would.
The next thing you know he’s calling you, or messaging you, with urgency in his voice. He says that he’s landed at the IGI Airport and that the Customs Officers have arrested him. He desperately needs your help because he hasn’t told anyone back home about coming to India and no one else can help him. He says he doesn’t know anything about the local laws in India and he only came to see you because he’s so in love with you. He begs you to help him out in any way – deal with the customs people and get him out of trouble.
You are now suddenly panicking, unsure of what’s happening and how to deal with the situation. You get a call from an official sounding person who introduces themselves as a customs officer. The man or woman on the line says that your friend has entered the country with a lot of cash and is in trouble with the law. He will be held at the IGI airport indefinitely until things are sorted out. He gave the customs officers your number so that they could chat with you. They say that he can be freed if he pays the fines and all the costs for bringing in cash like that. Following that, all the money that he brought can then be transferred to your account, which you can then use to reimburse yourself. But, the customs people say, if you or your friend is unable to pay the fines, he’s going to prison.
Your friend calls you or messages you again. He asks you to please, please, help him out of this situation, because this is all so new to him. He didn’t know the illegality of carrying so much cash into India (for example, 35,000 UK pounds in one case) and doesn’t want to be stuck in jail forever in India. Can you save him somehow? You hesitate, still panicking, not knowing whom to reach out to or whom to ask for help. You don’t know many people in the queer community. And you don’t have time now. The only thing on your mind is somehow saving your boyfriend/future husband.
You can’t focus on your work, you can’t sleep, and you can’t eat (especially when you think of your boyfriend alone in jail at the Delhi Airport). Eventually, you decide to help. You have to, because he’s in the country for you and it’s the least you can do, right? How much will the fine be, you ask the customs officer. These officers always sound like they are terribly busy, they always sound like they are in the middle of very important work but are taking time out to chat with you to get your friend some help. And they tell you the amount over the calls, over message, in emails (from the Customs Department and from the Accounts Department in the Customs Office), and in emails from the Customs Office’s account holder at the bank (Standard Chartered, SBI, Bank of Baroda, and many more).
First, the amount is a few thousand towards processing fees and the like. Then, the fines start: they start asking for tens of thousands and later, lakhs of rupees. Little by little—over the days, weeks, or months that they keep contacting you—you send them money. Each time you complete the payment, the person on the phone says there’s another bill you have to pay. Pay the fine for money laundering, for the cost of transfer of the foreign cash to your account, for the exchange rate interest, and more. They send you official receipts, tax codes that you can use for refunds, official letters even from the IGI Airport, copies of the ticket of your friend and more, to convince you. And you pay till you’ve broken your bank, given all your life savings, sold family jewellery, and taken loans to pay to get your friend’s freedom.
You don’t suspect anything until the money’s exhausted. When you tell them you have no more cash and ask the customs people when they will be releasing your friend, you hear nothing. Then the phone calls stop. Why is your friend not being released? You try calling back and there’s no response or the phone seems disconnected. No leads anywhere and nothing’s happening. Is your friend free?
That is probably when you realise that something is wrong. That, in all likelihood, there never was a real person behind that profile you chatted to. That this foreign ‘friend’ was an enormous scam to get money out of you and you fell for it. You feel shock and nothing makes sense. Your panic and anxiety hit the ceiling. What do you do? How do you get out of this?
So here’s what you should do:
- First, breathe deeply, and calm yourself. You can’t do anything if you’re panicking, right? Just let go of your anxiety while you plan your next steps, and stay calm.
- Immediately, call your bank’s helpline, call your local branch and speak to the manager or call the fraud section of the bank and give them all the details of all the transactions. Tell them that all those transactions were made based on fraudulent requests and, if possible, they should block the payments. Tell them to inform their counterparts in the receiving bank about the fraud, and then help identify the accounts and account holders to whom the money was transferred.
- Collect all the documentation you have on your friend: phone number, photographs, anything he may have sent you that appears to have some reference to him, if possible. If you’ve been chatting with him over months, see if you can collect all the numbers he’s used or anything that would help identify him. Anything, literally anything, you might have noticed that did not seem important at the time.
- Visit a lawyer immediately, like right now, and write down your version of what happened, how long you had an online relationship with him, how much you paid, how many people you spoke to, all the bank details (including all that you have collected from your own bank), any photos you might have, etc.
- Use the lawyer’s help to file an FIR at the nearest police station. Or, log on to the cybercrime division online, file your complaint with them about fraudulent money transactions, and provide all details. You don’t have to hide anything about yourself. Yes, you can even tell them that you are very queer or gay or bisexual or a trans person and that you were hoping to settle down with the man you thought you were corresponding with. You will not be in any danger for saying this to the police. This is important—don’t feel embarrassed about sharing these details, even if you were having cybersex or anything like that, make sure you share all the details. It will help in understanding how deep the scam goes. Is there a risk that the police will chat with your family and that your family will learn about you and your financial crisis? Yes, that is a risk. But that risk is not as terrifying as it appears. Don’t give in to that fear. You are handling this the correct way.
- Speak to a counsellor, any counsellor. The shock of knowing that you were cheated and led on for so many days, weeks, months, or years, will hit you the hardest. The loss of finance and the burden that it puts on your life and the life of your loved ones will feel overwhelming. You will feel like you let yourself, your family, and everyone else down. You will feel like a fool, you will blame yourself, you will ask yourself how you could fall for such a scam. You will ask yourself how you could be so stupid.
- STOP. Do not punish yourself.
- Yes, you made a mistake and yes, it’s an expensive mistake. But you will deal with it. You will manage the finances. No, it’s not going to be easy for the next few years, but you will get through it. You will work harder, you will take fewer breaks in order to recoup your losses, pay off your loans, and get financially stable again. But, do not punish yourself.
- The most important thing in all of this is to remember your sense of self, your self-esteem, your love for yourself, and think of the next big risk that you might want to take in your life, in your work, or even future relationships. Do not give in to your fear that you will never trust another person again, that you will never fall in love with another person again. You have to understand and tell yourself that you didn’t fall for this person but that he (and all the others working with him) made you trust him, made you feel important and loved. Get angry if you want to, go ahead and give yourself permission to go through all your feelings about what happened—feel it, cry out, scream, distract yourself, do anything. But do not punish yourself.
- And remember that you did nothing wrong. You trusted someone and they betrayed your trust and exploited you. Falling for a person over chat messages or over cybersex is not a character flaw. Being naive about, and not realising, other people’s intentions is not a criminal offence.
- This entire experience with this man you fell for is not worth anything more than your disgust at the person you thought you were falling in love with. It’s a lesson for all of us to learn about how to cope with someone breaking your trust. This is a lesson on how to continue living your life after making mistakes. Especially moving on after making mistakes with money—something that all of us have to learn. This is a life lesson on dealing with the realisation that not all the people you meet or fall in love with are thinking about your best interests. Sometimes you really do have to look after yourself, especially around conmen and blackmailers.
- A conman, that’s all he was. Do not punish yourself.
- Look after yourself. Go out and meet with friends. Watch a movie, read a book, listen to music. And more than anything else, keep falling in love. Keep meeting new people and having new experiences. Open your heart to other men—but keep your bank account locked. Go out on dates. Learn to have fun without fear again.
- Go out and make more friends within the LGBTQIA+ communities around you. There are so many of us out here that you can rely on and talk to in times of crisis, loneliness, depression, or when you feel suicidal. Just talk. We have all screwed up something in our lives. Many of us are disappointments to our families for some reason or the other. And while some of us are still going through these things, many of us have survived—not because things got better, but because we got better at handling those things.
- Call any experienced community member for help. Reach out on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter etc. Tell everyone what happened. Don’t feel embarrassed about having suffered through this. There will always be trolls who’ll make fun of you for falling for such scams. Pay no attention to them or their laughter. Warn your friends about these scams. Share the Grindr or Blued or PR profiles that are linked to this person. Tell everyone what the scam actually looks like so that everyone is warned. And I mean everyone—every newcomer in group meetings or pride marches or Facebook groups, every lonely queer person scouring the internet and cruising sites, ever senior queer person who is out of touch with the rest of the communities, literally everyone, should be aware of these kinds of scams that target them. We should know that this is not a new form of confidence trick, it’s just one that exploits some of our deepest fears. And above all, take care of yourself. Love yourself. Be good to yourself.
And the next time someone calls you from an airport, or anywhere else for that matter, and asks you to get him out of prison by paying his customs fine, the exchange rate interests for getting foreign currency, the cost of transferring foreign currency into your account, the parking fees for his flight, the recycling fees for his paper cup of coffee, for the bordello fees, or any-fucking-thing at all, don’t do it. Even if the person is someone you’ve chatted with for months. Even if you have had cybersex with him. Even if you had hoped to marry him and give birth to your three kids and have two dogs together and such. Don’t do it. Just stop.
Recognise that this is a scam. And take a deep breath. And tell the polite customs officer or accountant or whoever is on the call that you’ll call back as soon as you’ve washed your hair and ironed your car.
Cut the call.
Then take another deep breath and call your lawyer, the police, and put those culprits in prison.
Please contact the following for counselling or to just talk about your experience. Please add contacts of counsellors near you…
- Call Sahaya Helpline on 08022230959 or email on email@example.com
Contact any of the following lawyers if you have experienced something like this. Please add contacts of lawyers and counsellors near you…
- Arvind Narrain: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kunal Ambasta: email@example.com