While short-video apps have been in the spotlight of late, away from the limelight and scrutiny a new ecosystem of 'Live video chat' apps has silently garnered millions of users.

These apps allow users to video-call strangers. Four such apps - Chamet, LivU, WHO, and Azar - are among the top 10 grossing apps on the Play Store in India right now.

As per estimates from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, leading apps in this category make between $200,000 and $300,000 a month in revenue from India via in-app purchases by users. To continue chatting after a few seconds on these apps, a user needs to pay up and the charges vary - for instance, on ZAKZAK Pro, 30 app coins enable a one-minute video call. Coins are sold as packages that range from 269 coins for Rs 399 to 3,029 coins for Rs 3,999. Callers can also gift coins to each other during a video chat.

A lot of these apps have seen a sudden spike in downloads and user spending during the lockdown in India, as per data shared by Sensor Tower. FancyU, for instance, has seen revenue from in-app purchases go up from $5,000 in February to $38,000 in June. It added over 300,000 Indian users on Android in February and more than twice that number in March. In May, the app recorded over a million downloads in India on Play Store.

It seems FancyU is targeted specifically at Indian users, as its description given on Play Store is a transliteration of Hindi words in English.

Email queries sent to these apps did not elicit any response till the time of going to press on Sunday.

Most of these apps are either from China, Hong Kong, Korea or the US. Indian rip-offs of popular apps in this category are also clocking millions of downloads. For instance, Azar, a Korea-based video-chatting app, has over 100 million users on Android. Meanwhile, Azhar - Live Random Video Chat, a homegrown app with a similar sounding name, has seen more than 5 million downloads. As per Sensor Tower data, Azar makes an average of $250,000 a month from user-spending on its app in India, whereas Azhar made $40 from in-app purchases for the first time in June this year.


Counselling psychologist Ishita Pateria said most people using such apps are battling loneliness, a state of mind that had exacerbated during the lockdown as people avoided social gatherings to prevent exposure to Covid-19. "The anonymity factor that these apps provide is the biggest advantage for these users as it lets you share your secret desires without being judged."

Pateria said she has dealt with clients who use such apps. "These are people in their mid-twenties to mid-fifties. Women often feel guilty about using these apps, but men find it normal."

A lot of user reviews for these apps on Google Play Store allege that they send racy messages through in-built chatbots or showcase fake profiles to lure users. Some even urge Google to look into these apps to check for malpractice.

Google Play Store's guidelines for inappropriate content state that the company doesn't "allow apps that contain or promote sexual content, such as pornography, or any content or services intended to be sexually gratifying. Content that contains nudity may be allowed if the primary purpose is educational, documentary, scientific or artistic, and is not gratuitous."

In an email correspondence, a Google representative said the company does not comment on individual apps, adding: "When violations are found, we take action."

Rajshekhar Rajaharia, an independent cybersecurity consultant, said many of these apps do rely on chatbots to chat with male users. "These companies first collect users' chatting data from various open-source projects to entice users. Many also create fake profiles to maintain the male to female ratio for countries like India. Fake profiles accompanied by visuals of foreign girls make the job easier."

While the English-speaking demography is inclined towards globally popular dating apps these video-chat apps target Indian men from the hinterland, said Able Joseph, a cofounder of dating app Aisle. "These men know that going on a date or wooing someone may not be easy for them. In the US and some other countries, they can visit strip clubs. But that is not possible for these men sitting alone in a room in the hinterland. These video chat apps come to their rescue but many don't know they are being lured by chatbots and not real people."