At 43,101 reported cases, the FBI 2019 Internet Crime Report places extortion in the top three most common internet scams. Better Business Bureau (BBB) is again warning the public about sextortion, in which scammers blackmail victims into giving them money. Sextortion includes threats to expose explicit videos or images of the victim, images or videos of the victim utilizing pornography, copies of their browser history or evidence they downloaded pornographic videos. A BBB investigation reveals sextortion scams follow one of the following scenarios—phishing and romance.
How the Scam Works
The Phishing Scenario
The scammers will contact anyone – whether or not they’ve visited pornographic sites or sent explicit photos. They’ll claim they hacked your computer, activated your webcam, and recorded you while watching pornography. They’ll say they gained access to all the pornographic websites you’ve visited and threaten to send embarrassing images or videos to your contacts, family, friends and co-workers if a payment is not made.
The threat is likely an empty one, evident because the blackmail message usually doesn’t have enough personal information to make their scheme plausible. However, victims are sometimes targeted because their data was compromised in a major security breach. In those cases, the scammer may have your email, telephone number and a password, and will refer to it in the email to sound more threatening and convincing.
One consumer in Memphis, TN reported receiving five emails in one week demanding $2,000 in bitcoin. “They used one of my passwords in the subject line and threatened to send videos to all my contacts of me in a compromised activity,” she told BBB. Since she’d never used a porn site, she knew the message was a scam. Though this scenario is most common, victims are less likely to lose money because they often know whether a scammer is lying.
The Romance Scenario
Alternatively, the romance scenario involves a scammer who has tricked their victim into developing a relationship. The scammer typically approaches their victim through social media or connects with them on a dating site. Multiple victims told BBB they were coping with breakups or feeling lonely when they first began their relationship with a scammer.
Romance scammers use the relationship to gain their victims’ trust. First, they test the waters by asking for money with the promise that they’ll pay it back. After they’ve gained the victim’s trust, they ask for explicit photos or videos. Once they’ve gained the victim’s full trust, they blackmail them.
One victim reported losing $6,200 to a scammer who claimed he needed money for his mother’s surgery. She even sold her car because she believed he’d pay her back. According to the victim, “He builds my trust and then he started asking for money.”
Sextortion scammers exploit their victims’ vulnerabilities for financial gain, preying on feelings of loneliness and fears of public embarrassment. Unfortunately, threatening the release of embarrassing footage that could negatively impact one’s personal and professional reputation, can trigger the need for self-preservation, even if it comes at a cost of hundreds or thousands of dollars. Although the natural reaction to the threat of blackmail is fear, BBB urges potential victims to remain level-headed and consider the situation before taking action.
BBB offers the following tips to help you identify and protect yourself from sextortion scams.
- The scammer does not provide details about what site you supposedly visited.
- The scammer does not offer evidence to prove they have the information they claim.
- The scammer requests an urgent ransom be paid in gift cards, bitcoin or wire transfer.
- Messages include grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and a window of time in which to comply.
- When speaking to someone online, search their name to see if it’s reported to have been used in a prior scam or if it’s the name of a famous person. Read our tips on romance scams to learn more about safe online dating.
- Never send compromising images of yourself to anyone, no matter who they are—or who they say they are.
- Seek out legal counsel if you fall victim to revenge porn because this is a crime in 46 states and Washington, DC.
- Search the web for one or two sentences from the email to confirm it is actually spam.
- No matter what the email threatens, do not respond. Also delete the email.
- Do not open attachments or click links in emails from people you do not know. Doing so leaves you vulnerable to identity theft and malware.
- Never send money, buy a gift card or do anything to comply with the demands in the email.
- Do a security check on your computer and install security software.
- Enable two-factor authentication on your important accounts.
- Change passwords often and consider getting a password manager to ensure your passwords are strong and unique. Avoid using ‘password’, ‘Password123’, ‘12345’, and other most commonly used passwords. Click See more password tips.
- To give you peace of mind, keep webcams covered when not in use.
- Check to see if your email was compromised in a security breach.