Promising Sex, Delivering Adverts
How are an entrepreneur from Sargodha, developers from India, sexual frustration, cybersex pages, advertising revenue and an impersonation scam related to each other?
Sex sells on Pakistani social media, even without the involvement of a single sex worker. All you need is the insinuation that an individual could be entertained by an attractive host.
This story is the result of a deep dive into the rabbit hole of modern day catfishing: a bizarre intersection between thousands of people looking for “timepass” online through the consumption of live stream content and Facebook pages targeting those timepassers for advertising revenue.
According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, there are 65 million active internet connections in Pakistan. These Pakistanis spend most of their time online like people from any other country, browsing through websites featuring consumer entertainment, news, sex, and the like. Others find clever ways to utilize social media to supplement their income.
At first glance, Desi Voice – a Facebook page with upwards of 75,000 followers that activates and deactivates frequently – seems like a fairly straightforward entertainment (read: cybersex) page. The page shares live streams – live online video feeds that allow people to interact through comments and calls – from similar Facebook pages, some of which include “Noor Ali”, “Shazia Malik” and “Hina Malik.” On these pages, people tune in to live streams, starring a varied cast of attractive young hosts taking calls from their viewers, engaging in benign chit-chat with college students, middle-aged Pakistani men, or expatriate workers in the Middle East.
Apart from live streams, these pages also share photos of female celebrities – such as Hania Amir and Mahira Khan – and live streamers whose content has been lifted off various streaming services.
Every stream features a host taking “live” calls from viewers. The description of the stream offers instructions on how the viewers can get on the stream themselves: They have to share the stream on as many groups as possible, which the streamer is then able to monitor thanks to Facebook’s “sharer” badge for live stream viewers. Then, they have to download raunchy looking and presumably phone-sex related applications from the Google Play Store, such as “Sana (Entertainment)” and “Kinza (Live)”.
The applications misdirect users to believe that once they download the app, they’ll be able to privately speak to the host featured in the application’s title photo. On every live stream, the comments section is littered with hundreds of men dropping cell phone numbers with the acknowledgement that they have fulfilled the requirements. Desi Voice responds to every single comment with a private Facebook message, encouraging them to download the app.
One of the first live streams I tuned into on Desi Voice was an example of the same – a host taking “live” calls from viewers and hundreds of men dropping cell phone numbers. But the host’s usual “follow me on” messages were populated with references to the now-defunct social media application, Musica.ly. That struck me as odd.
On closer examination, it became clear that the “live streams” Desi Voice shares a few times a day are not live at all. In fact, they are mostly looped snippets of live stream content originally recorded for a different platform such as Facebook, YouTube or BIGO Live. Sometimes the content is years old. Live streams are deleted as soon as they end, presumably so that the same recordings can be used again.
I also downloaded one of these applications advertised in the live stream. The app “Sana (Entertainment)” was installed over 50,000 times on Google Play. The Google Play Store has 17 similar apps all by the same developer, SultanLovers. There were five more comparable apps, developed by MonsterMind. While most of the apps looked like an opportunity for men to talk to women and see their live streams, a couple were about fashion, cricket and jokes, such as “Pakistan cricket updates”, “Latest trouser ideas”, and “Nohay 2018.”
The only thing these apps can do is play YouTube playlists in the app window, with a skin designed to differentiate one app from another. Their singular purpose is generating advertising revenue.
Thankfully, the applications provide an “About” section, along with the contact information of its developers. I ended up speaking to four different representatives of the Indian software development company, ViaviWeb. Eventually, they clarified that the only reason their contact information was in the “Sana (Entertainment)” app was because they had developed an unskinned version of the YouTube playlist app, available online for a small fee.
Eventually, I was able to find an email address in an application promoted by one of the Facebook pages featured on Desi Voice. When I contacted firstname.lastname@example.org, with the offer of featuring them on Soch, I received a prompt response.
Turns out, this ad revenue operation comprising of several Facebook pages and more than a dozen Google Play Store applications, was being managed by one individual from Sarghodha. Under the condition of anonymity, he explained the operation to me.
Over the telephone, the Sargodha-based developer reaffirmed that he was only a “small fish” in an industry that is defrauding millions of unsuspecting social media users by dangling the prospect of phone sex in front of them. He was operating the application creator tag Monstermind Apps on Google Play Store, which features exactly the same kind of applications as SultanLovers, which developed the “Sana (Entertainment)” app featured on Desi Voice.
Through his training in software development and his ability to crank out identical applications while maintaining distinction between them through creative skins, he was able to collect a catalogue of these YouTube playlist applications ranging from phone-sex scams to benign cricket-related ones. People download the applications and after clicking through a few videos and in that time having watched a few ads, delete the application. But with those few ads, the purpose of the app is achieved.
[Voicenote Transcript: Logon ko bewakoof bana kay aur hum un ko app install karwa letay hein, to jab wo app install karleta hai to zahir hai chera chahiri karte karte 2-4 ads uskay samnay ajatay hein, aur aik ad bhi click karle to humara khata pura hojata hai din mein]
To my surprise, he was able to pull in a respectable amount of income from this operation. The source code from ViaviWeb costs him a meagre PKR 10,000, but the Google admob on the applications generates much more revenue. Each application pulls in around PKR1,600 in advertisement revenue on average every day, and operating five applications with two admob clients at this point brings home roughly PKR 240,000 per month.
[Voicenote Transcript: Ye ap dekh lay kay fazool si apps hein ismay humnay youtue videos dali hui hein embed ki hui hain, aur traffic gain karrahay hein Facebook say]
The operation violates a number of Facebook’s community standards, such as violating image privacy rights and encouraging sexual solicitation. It also disperses spam and misrepresents its operators’ identity. For these reasons, one such page, Noor Ali, has been removed from Facebook. The developer confirmed that the pages being taken down affects their business, but they have figured out a way around it: they simply migrate their content to another generic page with desi followers to continue funnelling viewers to the application.
This scam is part of a larger trend of misleading online content, commonly known as ‘clickbait’ or in legal terms, ‘spoofing.’ This is criminalised under Section 26 of the Pakistan Electronic Crime Act (PECA): “Whoever with dishonest intention establishes a website or sends any information with a counterfeit source intended to be believed by the recipient or visitor of the website, to be an authentic source commits spoofing. Whoever commits spooling shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to five hundred thousand rupees or with both.”
There is very little oversight of digital spaces in Pakistan, which can make it an attractive avenue for fraud. “Revenue for such apps is generated by selling users’ personal data,” said Shmyla Khan, the project manager at Digital Rights Foundation. The small print in apps developed by MonsterMind Apps clearly states that “Personal Data” would be collected, including “Usage Data”, which collects information about the mobile device, its IP address, operating system, Internet browser being used and unique device identifiers.
Khan added that owners of such misleading apps should be held accountable, as user data could be used for nefarious purposes. Currently, there are no laws in Pakistan to protect user data but a draft law has been introduced to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication. Until then, Khan believes that these apps fall under a grey area of law and users need to be mindful of what they are clicking, downloading and sharing online. With a few unsuspecting clicks, you may end up facilitating a cybersex impersonation scam that monetises the sexual desires of Pakistani men for advertising revenue.
— Additional reporting for this story was conducted by Annam Lodhi.