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On Instagram, in India, it’s sex for sale
13 February 2019 IST
On Instagram, in India, it’s sex for sale

The photo-sharing app is fast becoming a safe and popular haven for sexual solicitation in India.


Facebook’s photo-sharing app Instagram may have the best of influencers, celebrities, and even Indian politicians. But it is now fast becoming a safe and popular haven for sexual solicitation. 
It’s 9:43 am on a Monday and the hustle’s on. In a parallel world, an Instagram user named masti_with_sona puts out a post on “her” story. In large fonts, it features text, which reads, “DM FOR FUN...ONLY PAYTM USERS,” with three lips emojis. Here too, it’s time for business, but of a different kind. 
Sixteen hours earlier, the same user posted another “story,” in cursive font, “Want demo call @70. Dm me paytm users.” The “demo call” masti_with_sona was referring to is a pre-recorded call featuring a woman in a sexually explicit conversation with a paying customer. 
This is the underbelly of India’s Instagram, tucked away from the glitz, glam and lifestyle. Here, sexually explicit hashtags trump product or service endorsements. For instance, a search for #paytmgirl will get you 12,000 results, mostly with images of scantily-dressed women or even some extracted from porn sites. It’s the Instagram no one tells you about and, shockingly, the Instagram not a lot of active users know about. 
A casual search for Paytm on the platform throws up many such users prefixing their name with the popular payments company (paytm_riya_sharma), which appears to be the preferred transaction mode for these users. 
People familiar with the matter say solicitation of virtual sexual favours on Facebook’s popular photo-sharing app has begun over the past year, as Instagram’s popularity spread beyond the metropolises and drew in users from tier II, III and IV towns.
Instagram is today among the fastest growing social media apps from the Facebook stable. Industry sources say it has over 120 million monthly active users in India, with over half of those (60-80 million) using it daily. Their migration, sources say, came when Facebook started clamping down on illicit activities. 
ET interacted with multiple Instagram users like masti_with_sona over two months. These interactions typically involved a short exchange of five to 10 messages of a non-explicit nature. The reporters did not make any transactions. 
ET found there were nearly 14,000 posts with either #paytmgirls (2,400 posts) or #paytmgirl (11,700) on Instagram. Most of these accounts carried display pictures of women, either topless, naked or indulging in sexual activities like a striptease. One such account also featured child pornography. 
In an emailed response to a detailed ET questionnaire, an Instagram spokesperson said, “Hash tags used on the reported images were reviewed, and associated accounts and content that violated community guidelines were removed.” 
The spokesperson added, “Keeping Instagram safe is hugely important to us. We do not allow content that displays, coordinates or advocates commercial sexual services. We investigated the accounts shared with us ahead of this article and disabled those that violated our policies. We also reviewed accounts associated with those shared with us to ensure we covered all bases. We will continue to remove content that we find sexually exploits adults.” 
Paytm did not respond to ET’s questionnaire. However, Paytm sources say the company does not have control over peerto-peer transactions. 
This, however, is not an India-specific issue. Sale of sexual services and content on social media platforms is becoming increasingly popular and easy. Globally, on Facebook’s arch-rival Snapchat, popular amateurs and models would charge $5-10 for “premium” snaps, depending on user demand. A video would be priced at $15 and a video call at $20. 
The transaction layer in these cases would be CashApp, the peer-to-peer product by Square Inc, or Venmo. On dating app Tinder, profile bios would read, “Send me $5 and see what happens!” 
In India, unsurprisingly, it’s called the ‘Paytm girls’ phenomenon. Multiple people ET spoke to said this user behaviour was first spotted on live streaming platforms such as Bigo Live. Users would transact with a performer and pay (through beans or other related in-app incentives) to get a sensual dance. Again, the transaction layer was Paytm’s popular wallet product, as it was picking up pace. This was nearly two years ago. 
On Instagram, this opportunity expanded manifold because of inherent features. For instance, users can exchange titillating, sexual, private conversations over direct messages, a feature absent in livestreaming apps. What they are providing is known as a “service.” 
A conversation with these users typically begins in response to one of the “stories” they post on Instagram. The ephemeral 24-hour story, as the masti_with_sona case demonstrates, would have a “rate card.” Paytm_manshu’s card says, “Paid fun here. No proof listen. No proof.” This user claims to charge Rs 100 for a 5-minute video call, Rs 150 for 10 minutes, Rs 180 for 15 minutes, Rs 220 for 20 minutes, Rs 300 for half an hour and Rs 500 for an hour. An audio call would cost the interested buyer Rs 200 (without pictures) and sex chat with pictures, Rs 150 for an hour. Audio and video calls would take place on WhatsApp, on the consumer’s number. 
But payment has to be upfront, for which a Paytm-linked number is provided. Usually, these numbers are unreachable or unavailable. Users also post pictures of “satisfied customers” and “payment proofs” (or completed transactions) on their public timeline, which is part of the bait. When privately asked for authenticity, it is followed by a message which would likely read, “No trust, no service,” and subsequently “Don’t waste time. Only genuine customers.” These users clearly indicate they will not meet, or engage in “real life.” 


In one case, when ET verified the number using Truecaller and cold-called it, a college boy named Hitesh (surname withheld) answered, claiming to be sana_khan_paytm. Hitesh disconnected without saying much and moments later, blocked one of the reporters of this story. 
Similarly, a user called priyanka_paytm_007 had what is known as a “male admin” handling her account. The person claimed over the phone that her brother was running that account and she had nothing to do with it. A user named paytm_riya_sharma1 also repeatedly assured this reporter that the phone number belonging to rural Maharashtra was her “brother’s” and the Paytm account was linked to that. The “brother,” a man named Jayesh (surname withheld), told ET he didn’t know who Riya Sharma was, far from happily admitting that he was manning that account. 
Almost all Instagram accounts ET interacted with had male admins from small towns — Ratlam (Madhya Pradesh), Saharanpur, Bij--nor (Uttar Pradesh), Rajkot (Gujarat) and Ichalkaranji (Maharashtra), to name a few. 
“I have a feeling the Paytm girl is not a real girl,” says a Bengaluru-based person aware of small-town user behaviour, on strict condition of anonymity due to the nature of his work. “Instead, guys peddle women’s private content harvested from resold phones or at mobile shops.”
Sri (full name withheld) is a college student somewhere in rural Gujarat. After classes, he trades pornographic pictures. “It’s everywhere on Instagram,” he says. “This has been going on for the last six to eight months. There’s demand for it too.” 
Sri says, rather candidly, that he’s simply making the most of that demand. 
Sri and his ilk call themselves “Paytm Pic Sellers” — a cursory search yielded at least 15-20 such users — scrubbing the internet for pictures (including what is considered revenge porn) to be sent via WhatsApp or a Google Drive. “I don’t click real pictures,” Sri admits. “I only sell what is available on the Internet.” 
Sri’s Instagram profile is filled with sachets neatly organised on the ‘highlights’ feature. Highlights allow users to group their earlier posts or stories, thereby improving visibility. Each such highlight offers the buyer a sample of what s/he is about to purchase, though not the full set. The buyer has to then send a direct message to Sri and the transaction would again be over Paytm. Sri claims to have done 100-200 transactions, priced anywhere between ?80 and ?300. 
What’s most worrying, though, is the easy access to child pornography. “It is not surprising at all. It’s available everywhere and comes (across) in most unimaginable, subtle ways. You can’t do anything about it,” says a person quoted earlier in the story. “It is a real menace.” 
On January 27, Instagram user paytmgirlnidhi.00 posted a screenshot of a seemingly sexual video featuring two minors. The user’s story read, “#Full_ Vdo_In_100_Rs_Pay_Nd_Take.” The handle still exists. And it’s not the only one. Such content is even being peddled as “buy 3 get 1 free.” 
On January 18, a Russian user named ‘bastetlana’ went live on Instagram. The live feature is popular, driving a lot of engagement. Just as Bastetlana went live, paytm_riya_sharma started a live with Bastetlana. For the unaware viewer, it could come across as the Paytm girl, and not the Russian, who was live — a method used by these handles to establish that they are indeed women. 
Live is important to gain trust. Once in a while, these handles join an already live video, or more worryingly, use existing sexually-explicit videos, often grainy in resolution, to show they’re live when in fact they’re not. This was observed in a few handles during a random search for “Paytm” on Instagram. 
Though Instagram says it is working extensively with “communities to educate them,” it is restricted to large cities and far removed from the real arena. ET’s deep dive shows how simple it is to find the dark side on the photo-sharing app. 


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Shibu Chandran
2 hours ago

Serving political interests in another person's illness is the lowest form of human value. A 70+ y old lady has cancer.

November 28, 2016 05:00 IST
Shibu Chandran
2 hours ago

Serving political interests in another person's illness is the lowest form of human value. A 70+ y old lady has cancer.

November 28, 2016 05:00 IST
Shibu Chandran
2 hours ago

Serving political interests in another person's illness is the lowest form of human value. A 70+ y old lady has cancer.

November 28, 2016 05:00 IST
Shibu Chandran
2 hours ago

Serving political interests in another person's illness is the lowest form of human value. A 70+ y old lady has cancer.

November 28, 2016 05:00 IST

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