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?
Much 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. 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).
This evolution of sextortion is a change from blackmailing victims over explicit material to a more complete dominance over personal data and contacts.
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. The Snappening, in which an alleged 200,000 Snapchat accounts were leaked 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.
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) 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, 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, 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!
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 Raaphorst; Emma Watson by David Shankbone; A Modern Hacker #1 by Davide Restivo; the original webcam shot by Gisela Giardino.