Mobile numbers of unsuspecting girls are being sold from recharge outlets across Uttar Pradesh for prices based on their looks and are being used by men to harass them over the phone, police say.
The thriving racket has come to light after a round-the-clock police helpline, 1090, set up by chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was flooded with complaints from women about unsolicited calls. Out of the 6 lakh-odd complaints registered with the helpline in the past four years, 90% related to harassment of women on the phone.
A majority of the men – who seek to entice women with the preferred opening line ‘humain aapse dosti karna hai’ or ‘I want to make friendship with you’ – get the numbers from outlets where women go to recharge their mobile phones.
The unscrupulous rechargers save the numbers and then pass them on to those willing to pay. The number of someone considered ‘beautiful’ can command as much as Rs 500. The selling price for the number of an “ordinary looking girl” fetches Rs 50.
Navneit Sekera, an inspector general of police who played a crucial role in setting up the helpline, says anonymity is key to the latest scourge plaguing tens of thousands of women in the state. The “recharge Bhaiya’ often helps to buy SIMs with fake IDs that he keeps in stacks at his store.
Mohammed, 24, of Shahjahanpur, confessed to HT about what he described as having some harmless fun. His favourite recharge outlet is the one run by a father-son duo. “We go there when the father is away,” he says. He and his friends then use the numbers to strike friendships. “Sometimes we send vulgar pictures over WhatsApp,” he admits.
It is easy to be a mobile recharge agent and all that it takes is filling up a form and depositing a security amount with an agency mediating between the individual and the mobile service operator. Uttar Pradesh is teeming with them and not all are involved in selling the numbers.
“Not us,” says Manu Bhaiyya, who runs a PCO-cum-recharge outlet in Allahabad. “But it happens. It is mostly the new guys in the business who do it. They mostly sell or circulate the numbers among their acquaintances,” he adds.
The calls – mostly abusive and invariably offensive – are more than a nuisance. Puja Gupta (name changed), a 28-year-old housewife from Sitapur, had sought the assistance of the police helpline after being badgered by man calling from a particular number. Since her complaint, the man has changed tact. “The same man keeps calling from new numbers late at night. Ulti-seedhi baatein karta hai,” she says, fearful that the calls may arouse her husband’s suspicion.
Ironically, buying or selling women’s numbers has not landed anyone in jail so far in UP. “Koi crime nahin banega,” (No crime will be made out) says IG Sekera. The police, instead, go after those rechargers who enable the purchase of SIM cards under fake identity. “We have booked three recharge guys so far under Section 467 for dealing in false documents,” he says.
Police officials say the jails will overflow if those trading in mobile numbers have to be booked.
For the time being, those manning the helpline usually let the men off by giving them a stern warning. Rajesh Pratap Yadav is one them who deals with around a 100 complains a day. “I call the men. There are all kinds of them: young, old, teenagers, rural, urban, working or unemployed. Some say ‘she is my girlfriend who has stopped talking to me, some say ‘I dialed the number by mistake”.
But that’s little solace for the women at the receiving end. Criminal lawyers such as Avninder Singh feel that more stringent action is needed. “It’s a breach of trust. The woman has shared her phone number with the recharge person on the assumption of trust. If he sells her information, he is guilty of exchanging that privilege for economic advantage, a criminal offense punishable with as much as seven years in jail. He is also abetting phone stalking.”