In Depth

What is ‘sextortion’ and why are cases on the rise?

Police issue warning over criminal extortion using threat of sharing sexual images

A man using a computer in a dark room

Internet users are being warned about the rising threat of “sextortion”, in which criminals blackmail people to stop the release of intimate images.

Police in Kent have revealed how victims are “told by criminals that explicit images of themselves will be shared with friends and family if they do not hand over money”, Kent Online reported. Stories have emerged of individuals being “lured into recording themselves performing sexual acts” before being blackmailed.

Scam emails in which “cyber crooks threaten to release intimate videos of victims unless they pay a £1,500 ransom” have also been reported, The Sun said. This normally happens when a “fraudulent message purports to come from hackers, who claim they’ve accessed your webcam and filmed you masturbating to pornography”.

What is sextortion?

According to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), sextortion is a form of “phishing attack whereby people are coerced to pay a bitcoin ransom because they have been threatened with sharing video of themselves visiting adult websites”.

The scams “are made to appear all the more credible” as they often “provide seemingly plausible technical details about how this was achieved, and the phish can sometimes also include the individual’s password”.

The attempt at blackmail is “designed to play on people’s emotions so that they will behave in a way which is out of character”, the agency added, explaining that “the phisher is gambling that enough people will respond so that their scam is profitable”.

Cases of sextortion “soared during lockdown”, an ITV investigation found last year. Luke, 20, fell victim after he was “befriended by a woman on Instagram”, the broadcaster said, adding that in a “private chat” a “video of a woman stripping was played”.

He believed “this was the woman he was speaking to, but he now understands this was a pre-recorded video of someone else, most likely sourced from a porn website”.

“They sent me a video of a recording of me masturbating and threatened to send it to friends and family on Instagram and Facebook,” he told ITV, adding that the criminals requested €400 (£345) to stop them sending the footage to friends and family.

According to figures released to the broadcaster by the National Crime Agency (NCA), cases like this rose by 88% between 2018 (1,525 reports) and 2020 (2,881 cases). In the first two months of 2020 alone, there were 1,661 sextortion cases.

What to do if you are targeted?

If a scammer targets you, most often through an unsolicited email, the NCSC advises reporting the email to the agency before deleting the message.

“If you are tempted to pay the bitcoin ransom,” the NCSC said, “you should be aware that doing so will likely encourage more scams as the phisher will know they have a ‘willing’ customer.”

It also advises that you should “not worry if the phish includes your password” as this was most likely “obtained from historic breaches of personal data”. You should, however, change the password on any accounts for which it is used.

Anybody who pays a ransom to sextortion scammers should report the crime to the police using the non-emergency 101 phone number. 

The NCA told ITV that the scams are normally “carried out by organised crime gangs operating mainly out of the Philippines, Morocco and the Ivory Coast”. 

This makes tracking down the perpetrators difficult, “although the NCA is working with international law enforcement partners”, the broadcaster added.

Rising crime

After Kent Police issued a warning over sextortion scams, Detective Inspector Vanessa Law told Kent Live that “incidents of this nature are not exclusive” to the area, adding: “We understand that victims may feel ashamed or embarrassed, but of course criminals are relying on that reaction to succeed.

“It is important that we raise awareness of this crime type and reassure victims that officers will take reports seriously and each case will be dealt with in confidence with no judgement made.”

Wayne May, who runs a site called Scam Survivors that supports victims of cybercrime, told ITV that the cases reported so far are “just the tip of the iceberg”.

“I imagine for every one person that comes forward, there are maybe 10 or a hundred people who haven’t come forward,” he added.

“We’ve seen cases where the scammer has gone through up to 40 people in a single day. It’s not like a romance scam where they may groom the person for weeks or months before.”

Should you receive an attempted sextortion email, the best step is to “not open the email or any attachments within, and do not respond,” The Sun said. Instead, “mark the email as spam and, if you feel it is necessary, alert authorities about the email”.

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