A widespread blackmail scam, originating in instant loan apps, has ensnared victims in India and across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with at least 60 Indians resorting to suicide after relentless abuse.

The BBC conducted an undercover investigation that unveiled the culprits profiting from this pernicious scheme in India and China.

Bhoomi Sinhaa, a Mumbai-based lawyer, fell victim to this ruthless scheme when she borrowed approximately INR 47,000 ($565; £463) from several loan apps.

RELATED STORIES

These apps, promising swift loans, often extract personal data and use it to extort users when repayments are delayed. Recovery agents, part of the gig economy, are then tasked with harassing individuals into paying back, resorting to insults and humiliation.

Bhoomi’s debt spiralled, leading to relentless abuse, threats, and even the release of a manipulated, humiliating photo to her contacts.

The BBC investigation revealed that at least 60 individuals have taken their own lives due to harassment by these loan apps, with most being young victims who suffered in silence.

The culprits have managed to stay largely anonymous. However, the BBC did uncover a former debt recovery agent who exposed the system’s brutality.

Rohan, an ex-employee, recorded over 100 incidents of harassment and abuse, capturing the extortion on camera.

The most egregious behaviour was observed at Callflex Corporation, where agents were not going rogue but following directions from supervisors, including one named Vishal Chaurasia.

The recovery process often involves painting victims as fraudsters and thieves and pressuring their contacts.

The scheme’s sinister nature extends beyond India, involving a Chinese connection. Li Xiang, a Chinese businessman, operates in India through loan apps and recovery services, flouting local laws and resorting to shame to extract repayments.

He emphasised that their approach is akin to exposing customers to their vulnerability, leaving them “naked” in front of the scammers.

The emotional and psychological toll on victims like Bhoomi Sinhaa is profound. The shame and ostracization they experience have lasting consequences, with friends, family, and colleagues often distancing themselves from the victims.

Despite the victims’ efforts to seek justice through police reports and media exposure, the culprits remain elusive, with denials and a lack of cooperation from the companies involved.

Majesty Legal Services, another implicated company, refuted the allegations, while Li Xiang defended his operations, denying predatory practices.

This investigation underscores the urgent need for authorities to address this alarming issue, protect vulnerable borrowers, and bring those responsible to justice, all while raising awareness to prevent further harm.