Until a few years ago, it was the good old family connections that played a crucial role in arranging marriages, introducing the bride’s family to the groom’s, even if not the bride to the groom. Though proposals came through familiar members of the family, parents went the extra mile, even employing private eyes to do a background check. However, increasingly over the last decade or so, the matrimonial process has undergone a big change, and has almost migrated online. Various kinds of matrimonial sites, offering to find life partners for various communities and groups, have since begun to take precedence in the big hunt. But as things went digital, a number of issues popped up, the important ones being the anonymity for users, the inability to gauge the true nature of people hiding behind aliases, and doctored photos.
More recently, the police have highlighted the alarming trend of prospective brides, bridegrooms and their families incurring substantial financial losses and undergoing trauma because of online fraudsters. Unfortunately, many victims remain silent fearing societal stigma, of being shamed, and its consequences. Most of them do not come forward to file a police complaint. Fraudsters, both men and women, randomly target people who register their profiles on matrimonial sites and a version of the honey trap follows. Having made the initial connect, they establish a false familiarity and switch over to text messaging platforms instead of communicating on the matrimonial sites so as to avoid being detected by the site administration.
Sweet talk and bogus photos
Ashok Chaitanya, 29, of Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, settled a few years ago at Madhavaram in Chennai. Looking for a suitable girl for marriage, he registered his profile on a popular matrimony site and received a request from a girl. When he asked her whether his parents could go ahead with the alliance further, she said it was not time yet. However, she shared photos, supposedly of herself, and Mr. Chaitanya felt attracted to this woman whose pictures indicated she was bright and keen on self-grooming, presenting a sophisticated image of a person of culture, giving him the impression that she was above his station. She claimed she was working with an IT company, earning ₹1.5 lakh a month, adding that her family had property worth ₹5 crore.
The day she established contact with him, she asked him to transfer ₹900 to her account so she could pay for a food delivery since her debit card was blocked temporarily. Two days later, she sent a message seeking ₹30,000 to pay for a medical emergency. She said her salary account was on hold for two days and once it was cleared, she would repay him. She kept messaging him through WhatsApp for more than 20 days and she always ended the messages with “love you”.
“I fell flat for her sweet talk and was attracted to the photos she shared. She also said she liked me a lot,” Mr. Chaitanya admitted. “The moment you solve one problem, she will bring up another. One day, she called me up, saying she was in deep trouble. A financier was at her doorstep, causing a ruckus for non-payment of a loan of ₹3.9 lakh that she had obtained for her friend. She claimed that her friend had absconded without paying the money and it was embarrassing for her. She also said she had not settled the rent for six months. She pleaded for money, saying she would give it all back after her father gave her ₹5 lakh. Believing this, I made an online transfer of ₹4 lakh on a single day. I also couriered an almost new, sparingly used mobile phone worth around ₹65,000 to her.”
Mr. Chaitanya further said, “Whenever, I send money, she would say ‘I love you and will take care of you and all your needs. As soon as the marriage is over, my father will give ₹2 crore in dowry.’ I had a slight doubt then. But I thought she was the girl for me, I was enthralled by her sweet talk and gave this relationship my all.”
₹8 lakh and mobile phone lost
In the 22-day period of interaction, he gave her ₹8 lakh in all, apart from the phone. When he finally decided to put the brakes on paying her, she started blackmailing him. Using the numbers stored in the mobile phone (he did not delete the numbers) that he had presented to her, she called up his father and mother, spinning tales that he had borrowed money from her and impregnated her. That is when Mr. Chaitanya decided to lodge a complaint with the Cyber Crime Wing in the Avadi City Police limits. Meanwhile, she filed a complaint at the Madiwala police station in Bengaluru, alleging that he was harassing her for dowry. He was summoned to Bangalore and was shocked to see the girl of his dreams in real life — she looked nothing like the pictures she had sent him. However, he was lucky, as the police let him go after he told them of his complaint filed with the Cyber Crime Wing and the phone interactions.
Working on his complaint, a special team, led by Inspector of Police V. Mahalakshmi, nabbed the woman who was staying at a hostel at Madiwala. Ms. Mahalakshmi said the woman, V. Sravana Sandhya, 33, of Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh, was targetting prospective Telugu-speaking grooms on matrimonial websites and she had already extracted ₹1.8 crore from several people. She is suspected to have cheated more than 150 persons from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and abroad. However, only 23 cases were registered against her.
Money for ‘treatment’
B. Avinash Reddy, of Ameenpur in Telangana’s Sangareddy district, had a similar experience after he created his profile on a matrimonial site. He had just completed B. Tech and begun working with a multinational company in Hyderabad. A girl liked his profile. When he sought her details, she messaged him on Telegram. Two days later, she called him up. Though he sent his details and photos, she did not share anything in return, nor did she show any interest when he proposed letting their parents discuss the alliance.
Mr. Reddy said, “Two days later, she texted me that her mother had met with an accident in Kadapa and she had to rush to hospital immediately. She requested me to help her with ₹30,000 and promised to return the money once she received her salary. Thinking that after all, she was going to be my wife and the amount she sought was meagre, I transferred the amount to her bank account. Hours later, she called me up and said ₹30,000 had been deducted towards EMI of a home loan, and asked for another ₹30,000 to cover the medical expenses. I did so.”
His story did not end there. “One day, I had transferred several sums — ₹15,000, ₹10,000 and ₹5,000 — to her digital wallet for various reasons. She wept and told me that her mother was admitted to hospital again, and she needed more money. I had no idea whether her claim was genuine or not, but I tried to arrange the money. I asked my mother to spare her gold jewellery so I could pawn it and raise the amount, but she refused. I finally took a Paytm loan of ₹2 lakh and sent it to her. On another occasion, she messaged me that her mother required a surgery and she would need ₹8 lakh. The next morning, I decided to go to the hospital where her mother was admitted, and imagine my shock when I realised that there was no one admitted there by that name. I finally knew with full certainty that I had been duped.”
Gender no bar
In February 2021, a 40-year-old woman from Perambur, Chennai, who was separated from her husband, decided to remarry and created a profile on a matrimony site. She soon received a ‘like’ from Mohammed Salim, who claimed to be a doctor in the Netherlands. He called her up on WhatsApp and made a marriage proposal. Later, he informed her that he had sent a ‘gift’ parcel worth lakhs of rupees to her, and to claim it, she should pay money in various bank accounts towards registration and other procedures.
The next morning, a woman phoned from Mumbai and demanded payment for the parcel. She called up again saying the parcel was scanned and was found to contain currency notes and so a penalty had to be paid. When she went on demanding money, the Perambur woman refused to make the payment. As if they were expecting this, their tactic changed.
A police officer said that subsequently, the woman was constantly tortured by fraudsters through emotional blackmail, chats, and calls. They even threatened her that if the money was not credited, they would initiate legal action against her. The suitor, meanwhile, said he would come to India and sort it out, if necessary. Thus assured, she borrowed and made online money transfers. After a few days, she received a call from a woman from an Indian mobile phone number stating that Mr. Salim had arrived at the Delhi airport and as he did not have a Person of Indian Origin card, he could not enter India. To gain entry, he needed to pay ₹1.35 lakh. Or else, he would have to spend 14 days in ‘airport custody’. The complainant realised it was a proper scam. But she had by then lost ₹4.5 lakh.
Investigation revealed that this was a con job, no one existed by the name or identity of Mohammed Salim, and all the pictures were fake. But the bank accounts they used left a trail. The police were led to two Nigerian nationals who had crafted the entire fraud. The Cyber Crime Wing of the Chennai police arrested the two and they were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
Police list methods
Sanjay Kumar, Additional Director-General of Police, Cyber Crime Wing, told The Hindu, “These are just a few examples; there are hundreds more. Fraudsters create fake profiles on matrimonial websites and target women or men who register. They gain trust and get close to their targets through mails, online chats, or at times even phone calls, mainly using foreign phone numbers. They will then propose marriage and cook up stories that gifts have been sent for them and they were stopped at the airport by Customs and money is needed for Customs clearance. They will ask the victims to pay Customs duty and other taxes to receive the gift. At times, they even say that someone close in the family has fallen sick and they urgently need money, which will be returned soon. They will extort money as much as they can.” The number paints the true picture: In Tamil Nadu, from January 1 to July 31 this year, over 156 complaints of matrimonial frauds were registered. It was 230 last year. Officers advise those who think they have been a victim of such a scam to register a complaint online (https://cybercrime.gov.in/).
Dos and don’ts
Saichithra Swaminathan, Chief Product Officer, Matrimony.com, said, “We have created a concept called ‘safe matrimony’, through which we send videos and push notifications and posts telling our consumers what all they should or should not do. For instance, we tell them that they should never indulge in any financial transaction with anybody, or for that matter, share account numbers or passwords. We tell them not to meet them in any private places. Take your family or meet in public places. We try to tell them about various aspects, even highlight some frauds that have happened in the past to illustrate what dangers might be lurking. We are explicitly giving options for people to report fraud when they come across it on the website. Each profile has a link to report with categories like ‘These persons are not real,’ ‘His information seems to be fake’, and ‘He is asking for money’. We can further investigate with proof. We will take proactive action and even inform others who might have contacted this person through our website.”
Ms. Saichithra further noted, “We have 100% mobile-verified profiles on the platform and advise all our members to register with government IDs, an additional layer of security. As the nature of fraud evolves, so do our internal AI models that are trained to recognise and track fake profiles. Over the last few years, we have created a strong customer support team dedicated to intervening in such cases.” “Digital fraud is, and will continue to be, a challenge in the new digital economy and several sectors will be affected by it. People need to be cautious and refrain from sending money based on such interactions with people they have not met at all,” she added.
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