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Maya, 19, had been using Instagram for three years. Occasionally, she’d post photos that she was comfortable sharing in public. Mostly, she used the app’s messaging tools tool to connect with friends. And when she was unable to log in one day, she assumed there was a temporary problem on the Internet. Annoying, but not unheard of.
In fact, a hacker had taken control of Maya’s account and changed the password. How? Unknown. Was it someone she knew? Unknown. But two days later, she received her first email from the hacker needling her about her private conversations and photos. These were deeply private exchanges among teenagers. And the hacker was threatening to share everything with her father. How? Could he even find her father? She couldn’t know that either.
Then the blackmail started. The hacker promised to stay quiet if she shared pictures of her body. At first, she tried sending back pictures with her face obscured. Not good enough, he said. For three months, he continued poking her online. Feeling watched and fearing exposure, she says she sunk into a deepening depression and even contemplated suicide.
That’s when she reached out to SalamaTech. Quickly, the team was able to suspend the Instagram account. Next, they helped her close the email account where the hacker had been reaching her. Maya cannot know if the hacker made offline copies of her conversations. But several months later now, she has not heard from him again. And it could be that he retreated when he felt watched by the platform that banned his account.
In any case, the respite from his pressure has helped Maya find her agency in all of this. With help from SalamaTech, she has created all-new accounts, secured with strong passwords and two-factor authentication. And she’s been able to seek support for the anxiety and depression that she says was enveloping her.
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“Nasrin,” an 18-year-old student in a southern Syrian city, approached SalamaTech fearing for her life. An estranged acquaintance had stolen her phone at a gathering and gained access. He took over her Facebook account, changed its password to lock her out, and began posting pictures from her camera reel. Many photos featured Nasrin without her hijab, and some included her sisters and parents. A wave of private moments was suddenly washing across a public space—seemingly posted by her.
Then the blackmail started: the thief demanded cash to relinquish the account and phone. To build pressure, he began sending friend requests to more relatives and acquaintances. Nasrin’s father, who lives abroad, became enraged and vowed to return to Syria to punish her for bringing shame to the family at a precarious time. Nasrin and her mother feared this could become physical—even deadly—and sought help from the SalamaTech team.
By quickly appealing to Meta, the team was able to help Nasrin suspend and regain control of the rogue Facebook account, along with her WhatsApp account. This helped calm Nasrin’s father, who did not return to Syria. Next, the team helped Nasrin and her family protect their accounts and devices with stronger passwords and two-factor authentication (and Nasrin is now helping friends do the same).
At this point, the young man still had control over the phone itself, including any photos in Nasrin’s camera reel. However, as in many cases, once the attacker experienced pushback from a higher authority (i.e. Meta), he backed down. In this case, Nasrin knew her attacker, and the family even brought in a mediator—which ultimately led to him returning her phone. Nasrin has since explained to relatives what happened, and feels she narrowly escaped a serious threat to her social standing, if not her life.
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Sabah is a woman in her sixties, living in the same northern city as Afra. She follows a busy Facebook group that convenes nearly 20,000 women, mostly from the immediate area. It’s a wide-ranging space for news and conversation. In any given week, you might find members sharing tips about products, sharing tips or reviews about local doctors, or even looking for help finding loved ones who’d disappeared in the ongoing conflict.
Among its visible members was someone purporting to be a girl with spiritual gifts. Later, the team would uncover that this member was actually a man. (A female accomplice has voiced several audio recordings to support his online persona.) He built social capital through his posting activity before “coming out” as a spiritualist who could help locate missing loved ones and ward off evil. Sabah was not the only woman who contacted him looking for help, but she was the first to approach SalamaTech when she found herself in deep trouble.
After some relationship building over DMs, the scammer started requesting personal information and private photographs to support the “spiritual” work. But then the tide turned as the spiritualist morphed into a blackmailer. He demanded skyrocketing fees for his “work,” threatening to release her private photos. Based on Sabah’s description, he was a skilled manipulator, and the SalamaTech team does not know how many women he exploited.
With Sabah, at least, the team was able to intervene. Working with the Facebook group’s administrator, they banned the scammer from the group. Working with Sabah, they took steps to sever any connection with the scammer—and she has not heard from him again. They also helped her proactively secure her online accounts from hackers, and offered her a primer in recognizing digital harms. To protect other women in the near-term, the team helped persuade Meta to close the scammer’s Facebook account. For longer-term impact, they also posted alerts on this and other Facebook groups, with advice on recognizing online scams.
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Afra, 29, faced severe online bullying after starting work on a COVID awareness campaign in a smaller northern city.
When distributing masks on the streets, she often removed her veil to demonstrate how to wear them. Soon, unveiled pictures of her started surfacing online with messages framing her presence as immoral and insulting to the community. When bullies found her Facebook and Instagram channels, they attacked her more directly there. Rumours startling swirling that Afra was exposing herself because she was “promiscuous.” Explicit images and propositions flowed into her Messenger and WhatsApp accounts.
The rush of harassment took a grave toll on Afra’s mental health. A week into the firestorm, she was feeling deeply anxious, depressed and socially shamed. As an avid social media user, simply disconnecting from the Internet promised its own frightening isolation. Several journalists reached out, but she feared that speaking out could inflame the attacks. Instead, she contacted the SalamaTech team, and they offered her a comprehensive response.
Showing Afra how to report abusive posts to Instagram and Facebook (Meta) quickly reduced the onslaught. She also learned to limit access to her channels and block unknown users and unwanted DMs. To keep account hackers out, she adopted two-factor authentication and learned to recognize phishing attempts. Together, these steps helped Afra rebuild a sense of control over her online space, voice and identity. And this reclaiming process has been key to Afra’s psychosocial healing as well.
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