Getting involved with a new romantic interest can be exhilarating. As you get more invested in someone, you may feel comfortable enough to start having more intimate conversations. You might even send that person private photos and videos of yourself. While this might further the romance, it can also lead to something called sextortion.
Unfortunately, the person on the receiving end may not keep those sensitive materials to themselves. Although it may not have crossed your mind at the time, some individuals who receive intimate texts and multimedia messages plan to leverage them as blackmail.
You don’t even need to be active in the dating world for sextortion to happen to you: Many would-be victims have received emails from strangers threatening to expose and distribute sexual photos, conversations or sites in their browser history—unless they pay up.
“Sextortion [is] an easy way of making money,” said James Banta, a former police detective and home security and safety expert at SecurityNerd.com. “People will tend to pay the ransom [rather than] have the embarrassment of the photos being released. Revenge porn is a growing way of ‘getting back’ at a person over a failed relationship. Since our reliance and usage of mobile devices has grown so much, so has the frequency of this particular type of crime.”
What is sextortion?
The FBI defines sextortion as a “serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors or money.” The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center found that sextortion by email is growing significantly, with complaints rising 242% to 51,146 reported crimes in 2018, with total losses of $83 million.
Sextortion threats can take several forms, from someone claiming access to their victim’s browsing history to threatening to share the illicit photos/videos in their phone’s camera roll. This can happen without any prior interaction with the criminal, but it often occurs on dating websites and applications.
In dating app cases, sextortion may be part of a catfishing scheme where the catfish convinces their victim to send nude photos and then extorts them.
Jonathan Tanner, senior security researcher at Barracuda Networks, said that many sextortion threats are simply scams. He noted that hackers may leverage breached data like email addresses and passwords to bluff their way into a ransom payment.
“The objective here [is] to lend credibility to the scammers' false claims of having compromising information on the victim by supplying something thought to be private,” Tanner said.
“Ultimately, the claims that the password was obtained by compromising the victim’s computer is false, and the password is the only information the scammer actually has.”
However, some threats are very real, and legally classify as blackmail. According to Banta, most legitimate cases occur between sextortion victims and suspects who know each other personally and had previous romantic relationships.
During his time as a police detective, Banta worked a case involving two juveniles, where the suspect threatened to release compromising materials from the victim. The suspect was arrested and charged with extortion.
“In the time since I worked on that case, the state has expanded the laws on child porn to include a juvenile possessing such photos,” Banta said. “Now, they can be charged with extortion as well as possession of child porn if the victim is a juvenile.”
How to spot sextortion scams
You’ll usually know if you’ve received a sextortion threat, as the perpetrator will contact you directly, threatening to expose your private data if you don’t pay them. This is an obvious issue—what’s difficult is determining whether the criminal is serious or bluffing.
Despite the overwhelming nature of these threats, experts advise not falling for it. Scammers manipulate the psychology of shame and fear to illicit a response or action from their victims. Often, unless you personally know the blackmailer, there’s little reason for concern and no real threat.
Tanner noted that if a sextortion threat is real, the blackmailer will typically provide proof of the private data or files they have, perhaps by sharing a screenshot or a particular photo. A lack of such hard evidence (rather than just sharing your password) is a key indicator that the sextortion attempt is a scam rather than genuine blackmail.
“A blackmailer has no reason to withhold such data from their threat whereas a scammer is counting on the victim actually being fearful of such content being compromised,” said Tanner.
“Scam emails [also] tend to be very verbose and utilize easily searchable terms that will further instill fear in would-be victims, whereas with blackmail, simply supplying proof would handle this naturally.”
So you’re a victim of sextortion—what to do next
When you receive a threat for sextortion, your immediate reaction might be to pay up. However, Banta says not to panic: Many scammers send out form sextortion emails hoping they’ll find an easy mark who will believe them and pay the ransom.
“You can try ignoring it if you don’t know the person and they will probably disappear,” said Banta. “If you do know the person, ask them to send a photo as proof.”
Tanner noted that if the alleged blackmailer doesn’t provide any proof, never engage with them—even to call them out on their scam.
“Scammers generally do not like being called out for their scams, and despite the fact that they are generally less sophisticated than many other cybercriminals out there, they may still have enough technical proficiency to retaliate,” he added.
If you are confident that a sextortion threat is a scam, Tanner recommended reporting it to the email or security provider as phishing, so they can better block future scam emails.
However, if you have any reason to believe a sextortion threat is legitimate, report it to your local police or the FBI’s IC3 immediately.
“Your local police department … [is] very familiar with these types of scams and [reporting] it can help them track down the perpetrators and stop them from doing it to other people,' said Banta. “If you do not know the blackmailer personally … do not delete the email or text, as law enforcement may be able to use it to identify the suspect.”
Can you avoid sextortion scams?
You can’t fully avoid being targeted for a sextortion scam any more than you can avoid being targeted for phishing or malware. However, Tanner said avoiding suspicious websites and emails, as well as following good password practices, can reduce your risk of personal login details ending up on a data breach list, which sextortion scammers may use to “threaten” you.
“Changing your passwords is always a good idea, just in case,” Banta added.
If you wish to avoid real threats of sextortion, the one surefire way of doing so is to be very careful with your private communications.
“In the case of blackmail or simply to avoid embarrassment from a compromise, not sending intimate photos or texts would certainly be a good measure,” said Tanner.
Don’t fall for a ‘fear and shame’ scam
Thanks to modern technology, sextortion scammers can instill real fear in their victims who may have compromising materials on their phones or computers. However, with most sextortion threats, there is no real risk.
No matter how terrifying the threat might feel, maintain a healthy level of skepticism and act on rationality, not emotion.
“Lots of these scammers are out there just looking for easy marks who will panic immediately and send the money,” said Banta. “Assume that they don’t actually have anything, unless you know the person. Under no circumstances should you send them any money—always contact your local police department.”