“It is a good precedent-setting case for people who are victims of this kind of harassment”
A SOUTH African cyberbully who put up a fake Facebook profile and tormented and threatened a family for months was living right next door to them.
His intention was to extort money from an immediate neighbour on a quiet street in a Durban suburb. The cyberbully used an assumed name and sent threatening SMSes, Facebook and WhatsApp messages to pressurise his victim, a father of two young children.
He also harassed his neighbour by arranging constant e-hailing client pick-up services from his home and had food delivered to his door, all under false pretences, during lockdown last year.
On one occasion, the tormentor even threatened to rape the man’s wife.
Dharmesh Singh, 23, was eventually arrested by police in November and the matter was finalised at the Durban Regional Court last week.
While Singh also annoyed his own parents and other residents on Battersea Road, Reservoir Hills, with false food and e-hailing service pick-up orders, his immediate neighbour, Andy Hingdebi, who bore the bulk of the torment, was the only complainant in the matter.
Singh entered into a plea agreement with the State. He pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted extortion and accepted the two-year jail sentence or a R60,000 fine, which was wholly suspended for five years provided he is not convicted of similar crimes in the said period.
A South African legal expert has hailed the court outcome as precedent setting.
Attorney Verlie Oosthuizen, who specialises in cybercrime matters at law firm Shepstone and Wylie, said people harassing others on social media platforms had become increasingly common.
“It is one of the first times I’ve heard of a criminal conviction being followed through on. It is a good precedent-setting case for people who are victims of this kind of harassment,” said Oosthuizen.
He said that victims often didn’t know who was trying to extort them. Therefore, the victims remained frightened and reluctant to report matters to law enforcement authorities.
“I’m getting more cases on a weekly basis of people blackmailing people for money,” said Oosthuizen.
Hingdebi said Singh was relentless in his harassment over several months, beginning in March.
Using unregistered SIM cards, Singh was able to create fake social media accounts. Singh used Facebook messenger to demand R50,000 in cash from Hingdebi.
Singh asked Hingdebi to place the money in the postbox at the front of his house and he would collect it. Failing which, Singh threatened to send e-hailing services to Hingdebi’s house, kill him, rape his wife, kill the security guard he had hired and rob their home.
Hingdebi said he refused to co-operate but had become “genuinely startled” that someone was constantly watching him and his family.
What really unnerved him, he said, was the stalker being able to relate exact happenings at his home.
Once when Hingdebi was driving out of his yard he received the following message: “I see you’re left home without your wife and children”.
Hingdebi counted, during the period in question, approximately 700 e-hailing cabs from all the major service providers arriving at his front gate without him requesting them.
“On some days, as many as 40 cars were sent to my home. On a quiet day that number would be about 20. There were times when four cabs showed up simultaneously.”
Once he got this message: “… are you enjoying the taxis?”
In some instances, he turned away deliveries of Nandos chicken.
Hingdebi said he did not have any altercations with Singh’s family, but was targeted because he was living next door with young children and Singh believed he could get away with it.
Around June, Hingdebi suspected it was Singh and he told him so in a message.
Singh responded: “… well done, you caught me”, and sent a picture of himself and his children.
Hingbdebi said it was a very traumatic time for him and his family.
“It was the worst time in our lives. It continues to play on my eight-year-old son’s mind and we will be taking him for trauma counselling.”
He said the ordeal has also affected his family’s freedom.
“My advice to parents is not to put your kids out there on social media. It was terrible when he sent me pictures of my children and threatened rape.”
Although Hingdebi had hoped that Singh would receive some jail time, he welcomed the conviction and sentence.
In court, advocate Deker Govender read out Singh’s plea statement and accepted that his actions intruded on the privacy of Hingdebi, saying they were “devious, calculated, unlawful and intentional”.
While asking Singh whether he admitted to the allegations and the facts of the matter, magistrate Mohamed asked him to mind his manners.
“Please pay attention. This is not funny, it is a very serious matter,” said Mohamed before explaining the sentence she delivered.