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Sextortion on the Rise

Sextortion

 One of the new kinds of cybercrime has resulted in a new word – Sextortion.  This term has come to cover two different kinds of online activity. It is not surprising that sexual predators or those trafficking in child porn sometimes obtain, or coerce people into providing, nude pictures or videos and use those for blackmail. A number of these have been prosecuted.  In fact, Nigerian police recently arrested two Canadian women, Kardashian look-alikes, who apparently had sex with wealthy Nigerian men, recorded the events, and then blackmailed them for money.

But this has also become a very widespread scheme run internationally by organized fraud gangs.  A group that deals with this fraud, scamsurvivors, says that it has helped over 15,000 people around the world who have become victims.   Though victims are often reluctant to go to law enforcement, UK officials say that the number of complaints that they receive have doubled in the last year, and they are aware of at least four suicides.  In addition, this scam has been targeting young members of the U.S. military.

Here is how it works

A young man (usually) meets a beautiful young woman online at a chat site or a dating site.  They communicate, perhaps texting and exchanging photos, and then she suggests that become friends on Facebook.  Before long they both use webcams such as Skype to perform sexually explicit acts.  The crooks tape record the session, and then demand money or they will send the video to the victim’s family and friends.  Sometimes victims are called by the woman’s “father” claiming the girl was underage, and that this was therefore child pornography that could be reported to the police and result in criminal charges against the guy.

Who is behind this?

The organized frauds appear to be operating primarily from the Philippines, Morocco, and the Ivory Coast. But of course the victim does not know that they are dealing with someone outside the country.

How do they contact victims?
It is sometimes dating sites, but they often reach victims through chat sites such as such as chatroulette or omegle.   The frauds also typically set up fake Facebook profiles, stealing pictures of women from porn sites or other places on the internet.  Then they scour Facebook for likely subjects.  From looking at a victim’s Facebook page they may have a good idea of their social status and thus how much money they have.  Some frauds also seem to be using Linkedin to contact potential victims.

Who are the women?

The “women” in these situations don’t really exist.  They are computer generated sexbots, though that is not apparent to the viewer.  Those running the frauds can easily control the actions of these bots, making them wave, toss their hair, or do other things.

Who are the victims?

The vast majority of victims are males between 15 and 25.  Some are young members of the military.  The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) reports that it received 300 sextortion reports over four years, but in 2016 they received more than 120.  It seems likely that this fraud is also targeting military members in other countries as well.  Here is a good article on the response to this scam by the US military.

How much do they want?

This varies depending on the fraudsters estimate of ability to pay, but initial demands seen to be about $500.  Of course anyone who pays will face demands for still more money.

What effect does this have on victims?

Like many frauds, victims suffer from more than the loss of money.  As noted, there are several reported suicides. In addition, victims who are Muslim or come from a family with strong religious beliefs may be especially worried.

How do victims pay? 

Most of the time the money is sent through Western Union or MoneyGram, though a few use Paypal.  Other payment methods are possible.

What if you don’t pay? 

In this fraud the gangs apparently do not actually follow up with their threats.  It is easier to just move on to new victims.

Similar tactics of recording sessions on webcams are also sometimes used by romance scammers, and those frauds have been known to actually post explicit videos.  But romance fraudsters tend to have a longer term interest in their victims and may know about their ability to pay or vulnerability to this type of blackmail.

What is law enforcement doing? 

International fraud is a real challenge for most law enforcement.  However, after a suicide in Scotland by a 17 year old victim UK police worked with Interpol to take action in the Philippines.  In 2014 police searched a number of large operations near Manila that were engaged in this fraud and arrested at least 55 people.  These fraud operations had victims in Hong Kong, Singapore, the UK and the U.S.  U.S. service members were also victims.

The woman in charge of one operation was reportedly the owner of two different Western Union outlets that was used to receive the money from victims.  In an interesting twist, this enterprise was texting with potential victims and convincing the victims that they had a problem with their phones. The fraudsters sent them a “fix” to install on their phone which contained a Trojan virus.  This allowed the fraudsters to download all the victims’ contact information.  Armed with that information, the crooks apparently could even threaten to send the video to specific people such as their mother or father.

There is an excellent TV news report on this effort on Undercover Asia.  It runs about 45 minutes but is extremely well done and is fascinating.

I’ve seen no news on convictions in this case.  In the Philippines victims must file formal complaints, and many victims are, understandably, reluctant to come forward.

Law enforcement in the UK has also made a real attempt to educate the public about this fraud and encourage victims to come forward.

 What to do if you’re a victim.

DO NOT PAY!  I would recommend as a first step going to scamsurvivors.com.  They have a step by step guide for victims to go through, such as closing down all Facebook pages and cutting off all communications from the fraud.

COMPLAIN TO LAW ENFORCEMENT.   Even if  an agency can’t help with this particular instance,  the information you provide may help them stop the fraud and help protect other people from becoming victims.  Here is information on where and now to complain.

Sextortion

Sextortion

 Around the world, we are seeing a big increase in Sextortion frauds.  As it sounds, this is a combination of sex and extortion.  As you’d imagine, there are occasions when people have photos of themselves unclothed which end up in the hands of sexual predators which use them to demand money.  These are often prosecuted.   But separately there is a worldwide organized crime effort to extort money, with thousands of victims around the globe.

Here is how it works.

A young guy (usually) is contacted on facebook or a dating site by a gorgeous young woman.   After some back and forth, such as email or exchanges or racy photos,  she suggests that they communicate by Skype or another webcam, and things lead to them watching each other performing sex acts.   But what the victim does not know is that the video of him is being recorded.  Thus immediately after the victims if contacted and told that he must pay money or the video will be posted on the internet and shared with all of his friends and family.  Sometimes the scammer claims that the girl was a minor, meaning that this might consist of child pornography, and threatens to contact the police unless the victim pays.

How much of this is there?

We believe the vast majority of victims of this fraud do not file complaints, and thus accurate information on the extent this fraud does not exist.  But both the US military and the UK’s National Crime Agency report that complaints about this fraud have doubled in the last year.  The NCIS itself has received over 300 complaints about this fraud, more than 120 this year alone.   Scamsurvivors.com, which helps internet fraud victims, has received over 15,000 complaints from victims around the world. The US military has come to recognize that its young service members are being targeted.  It seems very likely that the same holds true for other the military in other countries as well.

Here is a good article explaining what the US military is confronting.

What effect does this have on victims?

This fraud does not result only in the loss of money.  It can cause serious emotional distress.  The National Crime Agency reports four suicides in the UK in the last year.  This may pose special problems for victims from strictly religious cultures, such as Muslims.  Note that Romance scams sometimes use the same tactics if victims stop sending money.  See the separate article on romance scam and how they work.

How much do victims lose and how do they pay?

I’ve seen losses range from $500 to $10,000.  If the frauds have access to the victim’s facebook page they may be able to estimate what victims can afford.  Most of the time victims make payments through Western Union or MoneyGram, though a few have paid through paypal.

Where are these scammers and what is being done about this?

There are apparently large organized groups conducting this fraud from the Philippines, Morocco, and the Ivory Coast.  But the victim may not even know where the fraud is actually located.  The organized frauds are difficult to locate and prosecute, though law enforcement in the Philippines, working with Europol, took action in 2014.  They busted several locations where this fraud was running and arrested 58 people.  Here is the press conference announcing the busts.  And this is another news report.

What to do if caught up in one of these?

  •  DO NOT PAY — They will not post your information online. And paying will result in demands for more money.
  •  Victims are understandably reluctant to go to the police, but reporting these is important so that law enforcement can understand how big a problem this is. In addition, reporting may provide information that helps prevent other people from being defrauded.   The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center is also a good place to report these crimes.  Click here to report it.
  • For real help I recommend reaching out to scamsurvivors.com. This is a great organization, located in the UK, and it provides a step by step guide for those who have encountered this fraud.

 

Steve Baker

December 13, 2016