criminal law


May 01, 2021



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As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, it takes no stretch of the imagination to see people staying absorbed in their online world. And in a society where people do everything digitally anyway, means lots of searches for Internet relationship in the hope of warmth and happiness. However, given the global trend of digital fraud, these searches and the resultant 'connections' are more likely to lead to heartache and financial suffering.

Take the case of the woman featured in an Abu Dhabi Police video released in late March 2021. She was single and so was the man she met on a social network. He gained her trust, and she began sending him photos and videos. Then came the blackmail, turning their tale into a full-on horrifying story. In the police video, the woman, whose face was blurred to protect her privacy, recalled the extortion. The man began squeezing her socially and financially to the point that she lived in fear. He threatened to kill her if she broke off the relationship. The victim retreated into a shell and started skipping work. Finally, a colleague checked up on her. "[A colleague] advised me to go to Abu Dhabi Police's social support department. I am surprised by how quickly and secretly they handled my situation and my privacy," said the victim. "My message to every woman is this: you must not trust any person or message you come across on social media," she cautioned.

As for the culprit, he could be jailed for up to two years and be fined between Dhs250,000 and Dhs500,000, according to UAE law. If the blackmail involved an indecent and dishonourable act, the punishment could be increased to 10 years in prison.

The woman fell prey to the 'romance scam', an old crime that authorities in the UAE were closely monitoring during the pandemic when people shut themselves in their houses and limited their outdoor activities to avoid COVID-19 infection. In 2018, a survey from cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab revealed that 50 percent of people (3 out of 6) seeking online relationships in the UAE also fell prey to various cyber threats, such as IT security issues after sharing their personal information.

As the bulk of normal life went online, smooth-talking cyber-crooks began picking targets. Many victims were snared - there were 208 cases of alleged online blackmail between January and September 2020 in Abu Dhabi alone. But this number, according to Abu Dhabi Police, was significantly less than the 605 cases in 2019 and 486 in 2018 in the emirate, which means that the police are cleaning the worldwide web of such elements and that potential targets have become smarter about criminals posing as heartthrobs on social media.

The 208 cases formed almost half of the total 430 cyber-crime cases registered during the first three quarters of 2020 in Abu Dhabi. The authorities are continuing with their online patrolling and crackdown. "The pandemic, which resulted in an increased use of the Internet, took the figure [romance scam] to slightly more than 200," said Counsel Abdullah Al Mansouri, Chief Prosecutor at the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department. "In many cases, the extortionist would pose as an attractive woman and share photos and videos to entice unsuspecting male victims."

The official added that there are two things that blackmailers were usually after - sexual favours and money - in return for not leaking private photos, videos, and voice recordings of the victims. "In one case, a woman paid the blackmailer large sums of money for an entire year in the hope that he would eventually go away. He did not. A blackmailer always raises the demand and never stops," said Al Mansouri.

Dr Hassan Elhais, lawyer at Al Rowaad Advocates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, told 999: "It is very unfortunate that we get a number of cases that include romance scam. The cases involve both genders, but most of them are women. The pandemic has affected the numbers since it made people more attached to their computer screen."

We get a number of cases that include romance scam. The cases involve both genders, but most of them are women. The pandemic has affected the numbers since it made people more attached to their computer screen
- DR HASSAN ELHAIS Lawyer at Al Rowaad Advocates

Law enforcement in other emirates, too, has been combing the Internet for online relationship fraudsters. Police in Dubai and Sharjah have issued warnings to men and women looking for the perfect partner to be wary of fake matchmaking services online.

A senior officer in Sharjah Police told the media that they had detected a number of questionable social media accounts - these had 40,000 to 80,000 followers - that acted as matchmaking services in the UAE. "These centres [offering matchmaking services] ask clients to provide details such as photographs, job profile, academic qualifications, and family background. In a number of cases, there is no guarantee that this information will not be used for blackmail or some other crime. In addition, the matchmaking centres also charge clients a hefty sum for their services," said the officer, adding that several couples interacted freely in the comments section of these sites, without any care about safeguarding their privacy.

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