While most internet users are pretty savvy when it comes to protecting their personal information online these days, an increasing number are falling victim to an emerging form of cyber crime that seeks to exploit a relatively untapped vulnerability in the victims it targets.
At the end of November, the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) warned that “sextortion” is on the rise, and has claimed the lives of at least four British men after they committed suicide as a result of being targeted by the organised gangs behind this relatively new form off online criminality.
Sextortion involves scammers using social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Skype to befriend potential victims. They typically pose as attractive young women with provocative profile pictures, hoping to catch the attention of internet users who might be open to the idea of a bit of online flirting.
After spending some time building a victim’s confidence, sextortion fraudsters attempt to persuade them to take their clothes off or engage in sexual acts in front of a webcam, promising to reciprocate in turn. Once a victim has engaged in compromising behaviour, the scammers reveal they have recorded what went on, and demand money under the threat that the resultant footage will be uploaded to video or photo sharing platforms. More advanced sextortion scammers use malware to access their victims’ social media and email contacts and threaten to distribute incriminating film or pictures to friends and family.
Although young men are typically the target of sextortion scammers, victims of all genders and ages have been targeted, including children as young as 11. In the UK alone, the number of people reporting cyber-enabled blackmail has already more than doubled this year to nearly 900 from 385 in 2015.
The criminals behind sextortion rackets are highly organised, and typically work out of countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, making it more difficult for western law enforcement agencies to track their activities and bring them to justice. In many cases, gang members will spend time researching potential victims before making a friend request, building up information that can be used to build rapport once contact has been made.
Earlier this month, Mail Online reported that a Filipino woman known the Queen of Sextortion is currently in custody in Manila after being arrested in connection with the suicide of British teenager Daniel Perry, who was blackmailed after being tricked into performing explicit acts in front of a webcam. Maria Cecilia Caparas-Regalachuelo is understood to have amassed a fortune while heading up a major sextortion gang before being detained as part of an Interpol investigation into Perry’s death in 2014.
Police in Manila arrested 58 people in connection with Perry’s suicide after it emerged members of the gang who targeted him sent the teenager messages encouraging him to take his own life after they realised he was unable to meet their financial demands. Investigators said the organised group had set up numerous social media accounts that appeared to belong to attractive Asian women. After the arrests, Interpol chief Sanjay Virmani warned that the scale of sextortion networks was already massive.
In June 2015, Northern Irish schoolboy Ronan Hughes killed himself after being targeted in a similar scam to the one that led Perry to commit suicide. Fraudsters demanded more than £3,000 from the 17-year-old, threatening to send compromising images they captured of him to his Facebook friends if he failed to pay up. After confessing his predicament to his mother and going to the police, Hughes killed himself after the authorities took no action over his complaint.
Although young men are the most common target for sextortion scammers, older people have also been targeted, often persuaded to engage in risqué behaviour in front of strangers online having consumed alcohol. At the beginning of December, a 60-year-old man told the Observer how he was tricked into undressing in front of a webcam after exchanging messages with a woman online for around a week and a half.
Police say that in many cases the victims of sextortion are too embarrassed to report the crime, and often feel as though they have no other option but to pay up in the hope that any compromising video or images of them will not be distributed. However, once a payment is made, sextortion scammers will almost invariably return to ask for more money.
The best way to avoid falling victim to this type of scam is to be wary of who you befriend online. If you’re in the habit of accepting friend requests without too much thought, be suspicious if a new contact you barley know becomes overly intimate in a short space of time. Even if you feel as though you’ve built up a rapport with someone online and feel as though you can trust them, don’t do anything in front of a webcam that you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in public.
If you are unfortunate enough to get caught out by sextortion scammers, refuse to pay and contact the police as soon as possible. The fact that incidents of the offence are increasing should mean that law enforcement agencies are becoming better equipped to deal with it.