Security Web Culture

Sextortion Has Evolved And It’s Scarier Than Ever

Philip Bates 07-04-2015

Sextortion is an abhorrent, prevalent blackmailing technique – and it’s now even more intimidating.

It’s a simple practise, and increasingly widespread as our obsession with documenting ourselves develops. We record our lives through social media, and communication is so easy. We can share a lot with friends and family.

Cybercriminals are taking advantage of this. And it’s only getting worse.

What Is Sextortion?

Sextortion is a truly disgusting form of blackmail in which attackers use sexually explicit images and videos stolen from their victims to scam them for money or further NSFW material. If the victims don’t bow to their demands, whatever pictures or footage the criminals possess are released online. The attacks are getting more elaborate, and so are the threats. It can affect any age, but children are frequently the intended victims.

The traditional sextortion method is a simple one: scammers create fake social networking accounts, and engage strangers in conversations. These progress to video chats (Skype in many cases) and the attackers convince their victims to engage in cybersex – which is then recorded and used against them.

How Has This Changed?

839984821_f1ee986935_zMuch of this remains the same, of course, but as well as enticing their victims into video chats, the criminals convince them to download a supposed-fix for an audio issue, which is, in fact, malware. Android is a particular target, but jailbroken iPhones are also vulnerable Smartphone Security: Can iPhones Get Malware? Malware affecting "thousands" of iPhones can steal App Store credentials, but the majority of iOS users are perfectly safe – so what's the deal with iOS and rogue software? Read More . The app or file then sends further personal data to the scammer, who goes on to list the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of family and friends, to directly threaten their close relationships. Nothing is private from the cybercriminals.

Typically, malicious app icons mimic familiar images like Siri, QR Codes, and photo albums.

There are various examples of basic malware exhibited in sextortion scams. Most concerning, however, is malware that intercepts SMS and phone calls, sends its own messages, and stops texts and calls from being logged by the victim until they pay the blackmailer’s demands. Much of this is handled through Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) How Does An Email Server Work? [Technology Explained] Behind each email is a powerful engine called the email server which pushes the emails through the internet. Read More .

This evolution of sextortion is a change from blackmailing victims over explicit material to a more complete dominance over personal data and contacts.

Famous Cases

It’s especially a problem in the Far East: according to TrendMicro, a Japanese sextortion gang stole at least ¥3.5 million ($29,204.88) from 22 victims between December 2013 and January 2014. Similarly, in the Philippines, police arrested over 60 people accused of sextortion, a group whose demands ranged between $500 and $15,000. Described as “just the tip of the iceberg,” more than 260 pieces of evidence, notably PCs, laptops, and smartphones, were seized in Manila.

But Bloomberg reports that sextortion is on the rise internationally. The FBI has issued similar warnings. We only have to look at recent controversies to see the extent to which our privacy is being threatened, by scammers, by blackmailers, even by governments How Britain's "Snoopers' Charter" Might Affect You British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to resurrect the "Snooper's Charter", a privacy-breaching set of new measures to enable enhanced monitoring of communications by the security services. Can it be stopped? Read More . The Snappening, in which an alleged 200,000 Snapchat accounts were leaked The Snappening: Hundreds of Thousands of Snapchats May Have Been Leaked Read More onto infamous message board 4Chan, shows the hackers’ intentions to target social media. Meanwhile, last year, nude photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Vanessa Hudgens were also posted to 4Chan.

Emma Watson

While these aren’t examples of blackmail, they nevertheless illustrate the hackers’ persistence. The threat of releasing topless images of Emma Watson (who had been particularly vocal on the so-called Celebgate How A "Minor" Data Breach Made Headline News & Ruined Reputations Read More ) ended up to be an ill-conceived publicity stunt by Rantic Marketing. It nonetheless is a chilling example of how things could turn malicious against the innocent. The pressure has even made former Neighbours star, Caitlin Stasey post her own nude photos online. “Now I’ve nothing to worry about,” she said, “because everything I am is everywhere.”

Sextortion itself has claimed far too many victims already. Aside from financial setbacks, victims’ lives have been heavily affected. The following cases are particularly disturbing.

As well as the efficient plans of organisations in the East (whose victims vary wildly in age), sextortion can occur amongst students. GQ reports that a high school senior in Wisconsin pretended to be a female student online and convinced a ring of at least 31 peers to send him explicit images, which he then used as blackmail material.

Cassidy Wolf, 2013 Miss Teen California, also received an email containing two naked photos of her in her bedroom, her webcam having been hacked. She was instructed to “do what I tell you to do for 5 minutes” in a video chat, or “Your dream of being a model will be transformed into a porn star.” When she didn’t respond, those photos were put onto social media, with one even displayed as her Twitter avatar.

One of the most shocking cases resulted in the apparent suicide of a 24-year-old woman who left behind a 4-year-old son. She received an email threatening the release of naked pictures found on a laptop stolen from her apartment. Even though arrests were made, it left her deeply traumatized. Justice Department prosecutor, Mona Sedky said, “it was really no different than someone being present with a weapon and trying to make her take her clothes off.”

What Can You Do To Combat Sextortion?


In July 2012, MUO spoke to Russ Brown Unfortunate Truths about Child Pornography and the Internet [Feature] A small blank square and a blinking cursor. A window through which the entire world exists. You only have to say the right word – any word – and your every desire will be delivered.... Read More , the supervisor of the FBI Cyber Crimes Division in Boston, who advised parents on how to deal with the growing threats to children online:

“I’d say the number one thing parents can do is talk to their kids. Make sure you have an open discussion about the potential threats that are on the Internet. Not only contacting a stranger, but also pointing out that who they meet may not approach them right away and may try to develop a friendship and things of that nature. So, you need to continuously have that open dialogue with your child, making sure that they have an understanding as the years go by, because every year that they grow up, the threats will slightly change.”

Another piece of advice is to monitor what your children are doing online. That’s a controversial topic, and caused a serious debate at MUO Should Parents Spy On Their Kids? [MUO Debates] Do you spy on your kids? If so, why? If not, why not? This is the question at hand today. These are the questions that we're going to explore in this debate. Read More , especially over prioritising protection over privacy.

Furthermore, it’s important to remember that not all underage individuals are likely to do anything like this. Even though sextortion is more widespread, it still affects the minority. Nonetheless, here are some simple guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Don’t interact with strangers requesting a video conversation or cybersex;
  • Don’t download any apps or files from anyone you don’t know;
  • Delete any suspicious SMS or emails;
  • Talk about what’s happening. Even if it’s embarrassing, family and friends like you for who you are, regardless of what mistakes are made;
  • Remember, whether your webcam was hacked, you volunteered material, or if it was found on stolen equipment, it’s not your fault.

And here are a few extra tips to avoid being hacked 4 Ways To Avoid Being Hacked Like A Celebrity Leaked celebrity nudes in 2014 made headlines around the world. Make sure it doesn't happen to you with these tips. Read More !

What advice do you have? Should the online activities of children be monitored 24/7? This wouldn’t help those older victims, but would it create a more secure, private future for today’s youth? Let us know your thoughts below.

Image Credits: computer hacker Via Shutterstock, Skype-mic for recording by Marco RaaphorstEmma Watson by David Shankbone; A Modern Hacker #1 by Davide Restivo; the original webcam shot by Gisela Giardino.

Related topics: Anti-Malware, Online Privacy, Online Security.

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  1. KT
    April 9, 2015 at 1:59 am

    I love how the freedom killing congress keeps giving the NSA what they want, then the NSA turns on them with these kinds of blackmail. I'm proud of my 'unique' brand of web surfing, so bring it on!

  2. WinDork
    April 8, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    I had to uninstall Skype on every device in my home because strangers were vigilantly trying to chat up me and my 12yo son when we were logged on. It's ridiculous.

  3. paddy
    April 8, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    I don't find that I use my web cam a whole lot, so it is usually pointed either at my ceiling or a poster in my office. I guess if someone did crack my web cam and I forgot to point it at the ceiling, they would only get to see my ugly ass working on my computer. Not worth much, less so if I don't have any shirt on.

  4. Bart
    April 8, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Articles on this subject have plenty of advice on avoiding the situation but never have any information on what to do if you are stuck in the middle of an extortion attempt. I would imagine that's a terrible hopeless place to be.

    • dragonmouth
      April 8, 2015 at 11:58 pm

      The best way to get out of the middle of an extortion attempt is not to get into that situation in the first place.

  5. thotutretr
    April 8, 2015 at 8:34 am

    my mum in-law got a year 2013 BMW 3 Series Coupe by working parttime from a macbook
    --- ?????????? >­W­W­W­.N­E­T­J­O­B­8­0­.C­O­M­

    • Anonymous
      December 8, 2015 at 3:29 pm


  6. killer
    April 8, 2015 at 6:13 am

    Put a black tape with cloth or tissue to cover your webcam. Limit your use of webcam if possible.

    Install good firewall which can monitor your outgoing and incoming connections.

  7. Erik
    April 8, 2015 at 12:52 am

    Android is no more vulnerable than iOS as long as you don't go into the settings and allow sideloading apps, despite the security warnings that you have to acknowledge in doing so. Why don't your prevention steps include not disabling security settings by allowing sideloafing?

  8. dragonmouth
    April 7, 2015 at 8:21 pm

    There is absolutely no reason or justification for storing salacious or compromising pictures of oneself on one's PC, let alone posting them on a social network site. If you do either one of these things, do not be surprised when you become an Internet "star" or a target of blackmail.

    Think of your web camera as a window on the world. Just as you wouldn't purposely parade in various stages of undress in front of your undraped home windows, put a cover over your web camera whenever it is not in actual use by you.

    • Kaira
      April 8, 2015 at 12:00 am

      Nice victim-blaming there dragonmouth. Somehow, I'm not surprised.

      When I was 14, I was pressured into sending nudes to some older boys, including a few to a 25 year old. I've heard those pictures of me are floating around on the internet. But you know what, that isn't my fault. Those boys should have known better. But whatever, I'll never get justice for that.

    • Bart
      April 8, 2015 at 2:25 pm

      There absolutely does not have to be any reason or justification for keeping those images, that is a person choice and none of your business.

      Theft is wrong. Extortion and blackmail are wrong. THAT is the wrong in these situations.

      If I said "if you keep money in your wallet, home, or bank account don't be surprised if someone steals it" can you see how pointless and misplaced that comment would be?

    • dragonmouth
      April 9, 2015 at 12:23 am

      "that is a person choice"
      You're right. It is a personal choice. Unfortunately many people do not want to face the consequences of their choices. If you make the personal choice to drink and drive, don't be whining later when you get arrested.

      "If I said if you keep money in your wallet, home, or bank account don’t be surprised if someone steals it can you see how pointless and misplaced that comment would be?"
      You're analogy is only partly right. If someone steals my wallet out of my pocket or steals the money out of the my mattress, I may be a victim but I have no one to blame but myself for not securing my money better. If somebody steals my money out of the bank then it is the bank's fault because it is their job to secure the accounts of their customers.

  9. dragonduder
    April 7, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    Great article about a terrible thing going on nowadays.

    I've seen a few assholes online making victim-blaming statements like "well they shouldn't have taken nude pics or videos".

    I guess if your house gets robbed, you shouldn't have bought a TV, right?

    • Kate
      April 8, 2015 at 1:54 am

      lol you just managed to get in before the victim blaming started!

    • Lauren
      April 22, 2015 at 2:05 pm

      That's the reason we (as a parents) should use parental control software to protect kids from the internet predators. I decided to install PCWebControl but now I need something for their mobile phones- any ideas?