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.