The incidence of love-struck Omani men defrauded of their earnings by con-artists – predominantly men masquerading as women – is reaching epidemic proportions in the Sultanate, an Observer investigation has revealed.
Exemplifying this increasingly worrisome phenomenon is the arrest recently of an Omani man who allegedly impersonated as a female suitor to con his victim – a prospective Omani groom – out of RO 1,900 in fraudulent payments.
According to a complaint lodged with the Department of Inquiries and Criminal Investigation at Al Dhahirah Police station, the suspect got in touch with his victim with an offer to help him find a suitable life partner. Having gained the confidence of his prey, the culprit then passed on a phone number, ostensibly of a young bridal prospect. The prospective groom tried contacting his non-existent ‘bride-to-be’, but received no response.
All the while, however, the fraudster convinced his smitten victim to fork out sums of money for his assistance in brokering the marriage proposal. The latter even sold off his car to raise the money demanded by the culprit to help clinch the matrimonial deal.
Hoping to keep his victim still baited, the fake marriage broker is alleged to have answered one such desperate call from the prospective groom at the prescribed mobile number. Speaking in a “female voice”, he tried to impersonate the elusive bride-to-be – a trick that he continued to play for some time. But at some point thereafter, the victim – realising that he was the subject of an elaborate fraud – then approached the ROP with his complaint.
Following an investigation by the authorities, the alleged con-man was arrested. In a tweet, the ROP said investigations are ongoing upon the completion of which the case will be referred to Public Prosecution and eventual trial. They also urged citizens and residents to be vigilant for any kinds of fraud of mischief perpetrated against them particularly by strangers.
Experts however warn that the case is only emblematic of a wider, deep-rooted phenomenon that thrives primarily on the reluctance of victims to file criminal complaints against the culprits. While some do manage to get redress by seeking the help of the local community in resolving their problems, others are warned against involving the authorities under the threat of blackmail.
An Omani attorney, who did not wish to be identified, explained the underlying factors at play. “Most men who lose money to such scammers avoid reporting their loss to the police so as not to suffer any embarrassment that would likely follow to themselves and their families if the case is investigated and the culprits brought to book. Some of them may have also shared personal images of themselves which they wouldn’t want being posted on social media or the Internet by the crooks. Such individuals are typically vulnerable to blackmail.”
One victim, who decided not to give in to blackmail, is ‘AA’, a native of Saham wilayat. Speaking to the Observer, AA said he was a target of a blackmail attempt by an anonymous individual who claimed to have ‘private pictures’ that he threatened to post online if he did not part with a certain amount of cash.
“This guy, whose name or identity I had no clue about, just called me out of the blue with this blackmail threat. But I went to the authorities who handled my complaint very tactfully and eventually arrested the blackmailer.”
AA has the following message for people being targeted by blackmailers: “Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to approach the ROP with your problem! The law protects you. Cases of cyber blackmail can also be reported via the hotline 24166828.”
According to statistics, 269 cases of blackmail were recorded in the Sultanate between 2011 and 2016. From only two cases reported in 2011 and 2012, the number spiked to five in 2013 and 17 in 2014. In 2015, the figured soared five-fold to reach 84 cases, doubling to 161 cases last year.
In reality, the actual figures are likely to be significant higher but with victims fearing stigma and embarrassment, the full extent of blackmail is never fully known.
Article (18) of the Omani Cyber Law warns that those who use the Internet or technology to threaten or blackmail another to force him/her to do or not to do something, will be strictly punished by the authorities. Investigations are handled in cooperation with several official bodies including the Royal Oman Police (ROP), Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), the Public Prosecution and the telecom companies Omantel and Ooredoo.
Offenders will be jailed for a minimum of three years and maximum 10 years in addition to a fine of between RO 3,000 and RO 10,000 if the threat involves a crime or an indecent act.
HAMMAM AL BADI