The digital age has made meeting new people easier than ever. It should come as no surprise that an online interest might turn romantic or even intimate. Unfortunately, threat actors abuse online trust. Enter: sextortion, a way to extort money via threat of public shaming.
The FBI recently warned that the number of sextortion complaints has increased in the first half of 2021. The agency received over 16,000 complaints this year, with losses exceeding $8 million.
Even though the number of romance fraud victims has been increasing for a long time, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the upward trend. According to Hannah Hart, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, with the absence of real-life dating, people turned to the digital space.
"The digital world is our new dating arena. Unfortunately, sextortion scammers have also benefited from this evolution. Whether it's by catfishing, "love-bombing" a victim, or taking advantage of hookup culture, the scammer in question can quickly escalate an online relationship," Hart wrote CyberNews in an email.
If the scammer has cultivated a months-long relationship with the victim, they might also be aware of family members and colleagues and threaten to leak material to them,Hannah Hart.
Beware of traps
There are many motivations behind scammers' intent. A recent study of over 150 sextortion cases revealed that some threat actors target minors to coax them into sharing intimate visual content. In contrast, others target random strangers for financial reasons.
In both cases, however, similar tactics are employed. Scammers will use well-known dating apps, social media, or emails to fish for victims. Scammers will usually pretend they're into the victim, generally acting normal to demonstrate a legitimate romantic interest.
The FBI notes that most victims report the initial contact to be mutual. However, the fraudster will try to steer the interaction from a trusted platform to a messaging app soon after. The criminal usually is the first to initiate an exchange in sexually explicit content, encouraging the victim to follow.
However, scammers do not show themselves – pictures are either stolen or faked. More advanced tactics involve scammers hiring a video model to convince the victim into revealing him or herself.
It's not uncommon for fraudsters to gain access to a victim's social media account or get a hold of a contacts list, allowing the attacker to issue threats of revealing explicit content to friends and family.
The stakes can get a lot higher for victims that have been in a relationship with a long-term scammer, who cultivate fake relationships for prolonged periods to gain more trust and acquire more information.
"If the scammer has cultivated a months-long relationship with the victim, they might also be aware of family members and colleagues and threaten to leak material to them," Hart explained.
For example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently warned that sextortion scammers target people on LGBTQ+ apps, like Grindr and Feeld.
Once the victim shares pictures, the blackmail campaign begins. To make their threats seem more credible, scammers will name who they will send explicit content to. Usually, that's members of the family, friends, or employers.
That can be an extremely harsh situation for someone who has not come out as LGBTQ+. Preying on that, scammers pressure victims into paying, simultaneously threatening to destroy the victim's life if a ransom demand is not met.
Victims of these scams often feel embarrassed, ashamed, and isolated – and that's just what the scammers in question are counting on,Hannah Hart.
For many, the heinous act of sextortion can be too much. Multiple cases show that some sextortion victims blame themselves for getting into trouble, while others even attempt suicide.
A 2019 case study of sextortion victims shows that they often enter a downward spiral of despair, social isolation, and perpetual fear. An aggravated sense of shame and helplessness discourages many victims from coming forward.
Even though there are more reported cases of sextortion every year, that is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Many victims avoid contacting authorities, fearing their friends and family will see images or videos meant for private eyes only.
"Victims of these scams often feel embarrassed, ashamed, and isolated – and that's just what the scammers in question are counting on," Hart explained.
Multiple sextortion victims who shared their stories on a dedicated Reddit page talk about the painfully slow realization that the perpetrators are the ones to blame and not the victims themselves.
Millions of people share their intimate pictures, and the trend is unlikely to change as long as we have cameras in our pockets and an intent to connect with others.
According to Aliza Vigderman, an industry analyst at Security.org, it's probably wise to refrain from sharing anything with unfamiliar people and beef up privacy settings on personal social media accounts.
"You can avoid being abused by not sending any explicit content, whether messages, photos, or videos, to strangers. Stay on the dating app for communications and make your social media accounts private," Vigderman told CyberNews.
It might be helpful to check on the person at the other end of the conversation as well. Entry-level digital forensics, such as reverse image search, might allow one to spot a scammer right at the start.
If, however, an adult decides to share their intimate moments, there are ways to protect against a possible scammer. According to Hart, it's best to keep videos and photos as anonymous and unidentifiable as possible.
"That means omitting your face and covering up anything that's instantly recognizable, like piercings, tattoos, birthmarks, or scars," she explained.
That taken care of, it's equally important to make sure location services on your phone are switched off to avoid accidentally sending a photo with geographical details.
Remember, that once an image or video is sent out into the digital universe, there can never be a guarantee that it will not become public,Evan Nierman.
Authorities advise to never comply with extortion demands and contact the local police immediately. It's best to document threats and keep incoming messages since that information might become invaluable evidence against a malicious actor.
Contacting people responsible for the platform where the victim shared pictures, and video might also help catch the perpetrator.
Evan Nierman, founder, and CEO of crisis communications firm Red Banyan notes that contacting the authorities is extremely important. There are no guarantees that scammers will leave the victim after they make the payment.
"Remember, that once an image or video is sent out into the digital universe, there can never be a guarantee that it will not become public," Nierman explained to CyberNews.
Most importantly, victims and their loved ones need to understand that the blame lies with the perpetrator and not the victim. As Hart notes, friends and family will be there to support during a tough and stressful time.
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