Fraud, intimidation, suicide: BBC documentary exposes the murky world of Chinese loan apps

The documentary investigates how loan apps push people into a spiral of debt, driving many to suicide.

WrittenBy:NL Team
A screengrab of BBC documentary 'The Trap'.

A 24-year-old woman dies by suicide in a Telangana village. A woman in Pune murders her grandmother to steal her jewellery. And a Mumbai resident has morphed photos of herself sent to her entire contact list. 

The common thread between all the three cases is the victims got involved with Chinese loan apps.    

In its 47-minute crime documentary The Trap: India’s Deadliest Scam, BBC Eye investigates the trail of loan apps owned by Chinese investors that push people into a spiral of debt, the intimidation tactics employed by loan recovery call centres, and the abuse that has driven at least 60 people to take their own lives.

Newslaundry had reported last year on how these apps are often death traps – they offer quick loans with little paperwork but at astronomical interest rates. Failure to repay at once can be life-wrecking.

This lay at the heart of BBC’s documentary too. The apps gain access to phone data, including contacts and images. Users submit government documents like Aadhaar and PAN cards. Users are then humiliated and intimidated to recover the loans; in some cases, their morphed photos were circulated or posted on adult websites. 

During her 18-month investigation into the scam, BBC journalist Poonam Agarwal met two victims and the families of two others. Three of them were women, one was a man.

“Anyone can take a loan from these apps,” Agarwal told Newslaundry. “For extortion, earlier pressure used to be built on those living in urban areas by morphing their images. But as the news of suicide became rampant, now calls are only made through WhatsApp and those living in rural areas are targeted.”

She spoke to Bhumi Sinha in Mumbai, who was in dire need of funds when her salary was delayed. Sinha borrowed money from a loan app called Asan and was expected to repay it in seven days.

“On the fifth day itself I began getting calls to repay the loan,” said Sinha in the documentary. She would receive over 50 calls in a day, all laden with threats and abuses. She then took a second loan at a higher interest rate to repay the first one, and thus the cycle began. The loan app sent morphed images of Sinha to her entire contact list, including colleagues, acquaintances and her daughter. 

“I was numb, shocked. I thought of suicide but did not have the courage...Morphed photos showing me nude were sent to everyone in my contact list, including my daughter, my father’s acquaintances, and children for whom I am like a mother,” she told BBC

While Sinha eventually paid off her dues, the other women who spoke to BBC were not as fortunate. 

Extortion call centres

The documentary included videos of call centres in Delhi and Noida being used for extortion and intimidation. An undercover agent, who was earlier part of the loan app nexus, shot these videos to show how recovery agents threatened and intimidated debtors, with one suggesting the victim “sell their sister, house or land” to repay the debt. In one of the clips, Vishal Chaurasia, manager at the Noida call centre, could be heard saying that he would go to any extent to collect the loan.  

The undercover agent said he now felt “guilty, but there was a lot of money involved”.  

While the documentary did not reveal the faces of the call centre employees, most of them were women. 

“During our investigation we found that mostly women work in these call centres. Out of every hundred, about 70 are women and 30 are men. This was surprising for me too,” journalist Agarwal told Newslaundry.

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