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'Sextortion' Scams Spike Amid Stay-at-Home Orders

Authorities see surge in threatening emails seeking money

Man looking at his smartphone

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En español | "Sextortion” scams have been increasing during the pandemic, the FBI warns.

The bad actors behind the attempted extortions typically email people and threaten to release sexually explicit photos or videos of them to their friends, family and other contacts — unless the target pays big bucks.

The pretexts vary, according to the FBI, which said targets are accused of visiting adult websites, cheating on spouses or being caught in another compromising situation.

Crooks may say things such as: “I had serious spyware and adware infect your computer” or “I have a recorded video of you,” the bureau says.

The spike in complaints has been noted by the FBI's Internet Complaint Center, which accepts reports online.

Ellen Rosenblum

Molly Quan

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum calls the scams "totally sickening."

'Totally sickening'

It's a coast-to-coast scourge. In Oregon, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum warned state residents about the growing menace after the bureau's alert went out.

"I just think it's totally sickening,” Rosenblum, 69, tells AARP. “Unfortunately, there's a fraudster lurking in every shadow, especially when there's some sort of disaster … be it a hurricane or a pandemic.”

Rosenblum leads Oregon's Department of Justice, which has received more than 200 emails and calls about sextortion scams since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Across the country in New Hampshire, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, 58, cautioned Granite State residents about the recent uptick in what he called "sexploitation scam emails."

FBI: Don't pay extortionists

Stay safe from sextortionists

Here's more FBI guidance on staying safe:

• Do not open emails or attachments from unknown individuals.

• Monitor your bank statements and your credit report for any unusual activity.

• Do not communicate with senders of unsolicited email.

• Do not store sensitive or embarrassing photos or information online or on your mobile devices.

• Use strong passwords. Do not use the same password for multiple websites.

• Never provide personal information — of any sort — via e-mail. Be aware that many e-mails requesting your personal information appear to be legitimate.

• Ensure that security settings for social media accounts are activated and set at the highest level of protection.

• Verify the web address of legitimate websites, and manually type the address into your browser.

Authorities advise targets never to pay the extortionists — because one payment invariably trigger demands for more cash, as was the experience for one lawyer interviewed by AARP. (See sidebar.)

The payment of extortion money “will facilitate continued criminal activity, including potential organized crime activity and associated violent crimes,” the FBI's April alert says.

Sextortion is an old scam surging now because of stay-at-home orders, says Amy Nofziger, who oversees AARP's Fraud Watch Network helpline, as more people than usual are tethered to their computers. The toll-free helpline number is 877-908-3360.

Hiding behind digital currencies

Many of the crooks demand payment in Bitcoin, an unregulated cryptocurrency favored by fraudsters, Nofziger says. The virtual currency “provides a high degree of anonymity to the transactions,” the FBI notes.

The Fraud Watch Network helpline sometimes receives dozens of reports a day about online sextortion demands, says Nofziger, AARP's director of fraud victim support.

Complaints from across U.S.

The vicious nature of sextortion targeting older Americans is underscored by recent helpline calls:

• An 85-year-old man in Illinois said he'd been contacted by email — five times — with threats that the crooks would release video of him watching porn if he did not cough up $2,000 in Bitcoin.

• A 75-year-old woman in Delaware received an email threatening to send out compromising photos of her watching adult material until she paid in Bitcoin.

• An 80-year-old man in Massachusetts was told the crooks would expose compromising pictures of him unless he forked over $2,000 in Bitcoin.

• An 89-year-old woman in New Jersey received four emails, threatening to reveal her secrets, unless she paid with Bitcoin.

The FBI's Internet Complaint Center's annual report for 2019 does not break down how many sextortion complaints were made but says 43,101 people reported being victimized by extortion in general, with overall losses of $107.5 million.

According to the FBI, the bad actors add a “higher degree of intimidation” to sextortion scams by noting in the emails some personal information about the recipient, such as a user name or password.

Usually, that's information obtained from a big corporate data breach, says Rosenblum, Oregon's attorney general.

Don't panic

Rosenblum urges people who receive sextortion emails not to panic, saying “it is highly unlikely the cyber-blackmailer has actually invaded your computer."

While scared, most targets are savvy enough to spot a scam and do not pay sextortionists, both she and Nofziger say.

Still, victims are upset because the bad actors have one of their passwords, a partial password or an old password, Nofziger adds.


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Threats of violence in Oregon

As Rosenblum tells it, the scams vary, and some threaten violence.

Consider the case reported to her office late in April. After an 80-year-old man died, his nephew with power of attorney — the authority to act on his behalf in legal and financial matters — went online to file a change of address for the deceased.

Unfortunately, the online site was a fraud, not the official change-of-address site run by the U.S. Postal Service. Within 30 minutes, the nephew got a call from a fraudster posing as a Portland police detective, who accused the uncle of having streamed child pornography from the adult foster home where he lived.

"My uncle was 80 years old, an invalid, never used a computer in his entire life,” the nephew told the Oregon Department of Justice.

The nephew was told he himself would be prosecuted on child porn charges and warned he could go to prison. The phony detective called the nephew a pervert, used foul language and threatened to visit in his squad car with his gun and shoot the nephew's dogs.

After the nephew hung up, he saw he'd been billed for $79.95 for the ostensible change of address. (The U.S. Postal Service charges $1.05 to file a change of address online.)

According to Rosenblum, the nephew contested the charge and expects a credit.

Sextortion attempts, the FBI says, often show up in emails from unknown senders, and the communication may be in broken English and contain grammatical errors. And the extortionists usually give their targets a short window, typically 48 hours, to pay.

Love trap and online dating fraud concept

Getty Images

True-crime tale of sextortion blackmail

Some sextortionists have compromising images of their targets and blackmail them into coughing up cash, as happened to a man in his 50s who spoke to AARP.

An attorney from a Midwestern state, he spoke to warn others about the insidious ways foreign fraudsters target older men in the U.S., including those who are prominent, wealthy, newly divorced or widowed. He gave an interview on condition that his name and place of residence not be identified.

The fraudsters “are internet con artists extraordinaire,” the lawyer says.

Trap set with a “friend” request

His “excruciating and hurtful” experience began with a friend request on social media. He learned later from cybercrimes investigators that the request came from Croatia. Things between him and the mystery woman heated up during intimate online video chats.

Soon came a request for cash — or the compromising images of him would be shared.

As instructed, he used money-transfer services to send $1,000 to the Philippines, more than 6,000 miles from Croatia. Next came a second request — for $2,000 — and he complied. A third request, for $5,000, followed, but instead of sending the money, he alerted police. The authorities contacted the fraudsters, who disappeared.

The victim says the “scary part” is that the criminals would have “nickeled and dimed” him had he not gone to the police.

Chasing ‘phantoms'

There were no arrests, and the victim doesn't expect to get his money back. What he'd like more is to shut down the “phantoms” who he thinks are still blackmailing other victims.

"They're moving targets,” he says. “The use of the internet allows people with bad intentions” to operate “from the basement of their homes or … sitting in some sidewalk café in plain sight.”

Looking back, he says he was lonely and vulnerable and didn't recognize the friend request “was not legitimate."

'My worst hour'

"It was my worst hour,” he says now. “It was my worst day, week, year."

The fraudsters “are phishing [sending fraudulent communications] with a very wide net, so they probably lose 98 percent of the time” but on occasion score big hits, he observes.

He urges people to be skeptical and carefully verify assertions on the internet, including in emails and on social media. “When in doubt, ask a friend if this smells right,” he adds.

"We are all fallible. We are all susceptible and potentially vulnerable to something like this,” he says.

Redemption and forgiveness

Today he's glad the experience is long behind him and, even more, grateful that his wife and children stood by him. “The good news,” he says, “is there is redemption through time and effort and patience."

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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