Features 28.05.2024

The Deadly Cost of Sextortion: AI, Blackmail and Suicide

Often perpetrated by organised crime groups operating overseas aiming to extort cash, sextortion is a growing issue.

Financially motivated sexual extortion is on the rise. Kate O’Flaherty asks what can be done to stop it

In February 2019, US tabloid The National Enquirer threatened to publish intimate photos of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unless he dropped an investigation into its reporting. Bezos refused to comply, saying, “If, in my position, I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”

It’s probably the most famous example of sextortion, but five years later, the practice is increasingly common. In April, senior Conservative MP William Wragg told The Times he provided colleagues’ personal phone numbers to a man he met on dating app Grindr after being caught out by sending intimate pictures of himself to the user. “I’ve hurt people by being weak. I was scared. I’m mortified. I’m so sorry,” he told The Times.

Sextortion is the short name for ‘financially motivated sexual extortion’. The Met Police describes the practice as “a type of online blackmail where criminals threaten to share sexual pictures, videos, or information about you”.

Often perpetrated by organised crime groups operating overseas aiming to extort cash, sextortion is a growing issue. Reports to The Revenge Porn Helpline doubled last year to reach nearly 19,000, with sextortion making up over a third of those. It is the main form of intimate image abuse reported to the helpline, with 93% of cases reported by men.

Young victims

Many sextortion victims are young. Last year, a 16-year-old boy from Dunblane killed himself hours after he was contacted on social media by someone claiming to be a young girl. The scammer tricked him into sending an intimate image and then blackmailed him with it.

An article on ITV.com describes how Murray Dowey enjoyed festive celebrations with his parents and two brothers last year before going to his room as usual. His family “never for a minute thought that was the last time [they] were going to see him”.

In April, two people were arrested in Nigeria over an alleged sextortion attempt against an Australian schoolboy who also took his own life. Again, the teenage victim had unknowingly traded explicit images with an online scammer before they began making threats and demanding money.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, the police force’s cyber crime commander, Matthew Craft, described the messages as “horrific”.

“They’re aggressive and put a lot of pressure on the boy to pay the money,” Craft told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Every trick in the book

It’s easy to see how people fall for sextortion scams. Cyber criminals will use “every influential trick in the book” to gain their victim’s trust to receive intimate images, says Jake Moore, global cybersecurity advisor at ESET. But paying isn’t the answer and usually leads to more attempts to extort, he says.

“Unfortunately, supplying the attackers with their demand often makes them think you are willing to pay any amount necessary to keep these images from being shared online,” Moore warns. This can see victims targeted repeatedly until the money or information dries up, he says.

One woman described how a hacker posing as a familiar acquaintance contacted her on Facebook, asking her to vote in a modelling competition online. She told Comparitech how she handed over her Apple and Google IDs to be added to a group before things went sour.

The attacker took control of iCloud, Hotmail and Facebook accounts and threatened to expose sexual images from her phone to her family, friends and strangers unless she performed sex acts in front of him on FaceTime.

“Attackers leverage victims’ fears and sense of urgency” Paul Bischoff

She wrote in a Reddit post: “He told me he knows the kind of person I am. He has seen all my photographs, read all my iMessage and WhatsApp chats and seen x-rated photographs. He has access to a lot of my information that I would not want to be shared. He lectures me about how I’m a bad girl, that I have smoked weed and had sex.”

When she refused to comply, her attacker posted a compromising photograph as her Facebook profile picture. Her friends immediately reported the hacker, and the post was only up for 10 minutes before her profile was deactivated, but by then, the damage had already been done.

As well as financial losses from any money paid to attackers, sextortion can have a substantial emotional impact. Sextortion exploits feelings of shame and embarrassment and instils fear in the victim, says Paul Bischoff, security and privacy advocate at Comparitech. “The victim might take drastic measures to prevent sexual content from reaching friends, family, employers and the general public. Attackers leverage victims’ fears and sense of urgency.”

It’s no surprise that sextortion attempts can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, which can result in victims self-harming and even suicide, says Chris Hauk, consumer privacy advocate at Pixel Privacy. “Victims are faced with feelings of helplessness, humiliation, shame and fear.”

Criminals mainly do it to make money, but some attackers might get a “perverted pleasure” out of sextortion, Bischoff says.

AI and deep fakes

It’s a growing concern, and things are likely to get worse as artificial intelligence (AI) allows criminals to create deep fake videos and images to use for sextortion.

AI and deep fakes could allow an attacker to fabricate sexual content, so they don’t even need genuine images to exploit someone, says Bischoff. However, he points out that someone extorted using real photos could claim they were fabricated using AI.

“Law enforcement faces challenges due to the cross-border nature of these digital crimes” Deryck Mitchelson

The FBI has identified a growing trend in the use of AI to manipulate innocent images into sexually explicit content, says Deryck Mitchelson, global CISO at Check Point Software. “Law enforcement faces challenges due to the cross-border nature of these digital crimes, relying heavily on international collaboration. This leaves extortionists a significant amount of time to target as many potential victims as possible.”

With this in mind, concerted efforts are underway to develop improved detection technologies, including AI-driven algorithms to combat the manipulation of deepfake technology. However, ensuring the accessibility and awareness of these solutions to consumers likely to be targeted is “crucial”, Mitchelson says.

Finding attackers

Social media firms are also being called upon to address sextortion and prevent more teens from being affected by the crime. In April, Facebook owner Meta announced new features to help protect young people from sextortion and intimate image abuse on Facebook and Instagram. The firm hopes to make it more difficult for potential scammers and criminals to find and interact with teens.

While steps are being taken to tackle the crime itself, one of the major issues is that it’s very difficult to find sextortion attackers and charge them. “With technology enabling attackers to remain anonymous such as VPNs and the dark web, there is often little the police can do regarding investigations,” Moore says.

Unfortunately, avoiding sextortion mainly comes down to individual vigilance, says Bischoff: “Don’t take or share intimate photos and practice basic cyber hygiene, such as setting strong passwords, using two-factor authentication, and don’t click on links or attachments in unsolicited messages.”

Teens and other likely targets of sextortion must be careful about the images they share while also being wary of anyone they encounter online, says Hauk.  “Users should ignore or block messages from strangers. Do not reply; simply block and report the sender.

At the same time, parents should educate their children about sextortion and use real-world examples, says Roger Grimes, data-driven defence evangelist at KnowBe4. “Let children know that any compromising photo and video can be used against them.”

Experts agree that sextortion needs to be talked about more openly to try and avoid the guilt and shame that causes people to feel there’s no way out after being attacked. Sextortion isn’t discussed enough, and victims “desperately need more support”, says Moore. “People of all ages need prior advice and the right tools to help protect them from potentially devastating situations and crimes involving sextortion.”

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