It is no secret that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, most people are coping with social distancing guidelines by spending more time online. The accessibility of video and photo sharing technology has inevitably created more opportunities to engage in intimate personal interactions from the perceived safety of our own homes. This can be costly if unsuspecting Internet users are not careful to also keep their virtual distance from strangers when using webcams.
Unsurprisingly, we at Minc Law have noted a surge in online dating and social media use during COVID, and as a result more cases of online sextortion and blackmail.
One of the most common types of webcam dangers we encounter in our practice is sextortion. This occurs when a person (usually a man) is blackmailed after being persuaded to perform sexual acts for someone he believes is a woman using a webcam. Although victims range in age from teens to seniors, most victims are men between the ages of 21 and 30.
These acts are recorded without the victim’s knowledge and often the person they believe is responding in real time is actually prerecorded. By the time they become aware of the recording, the sextortion scammer is then demanding payment of hundreds or thousands of dollars as a ransom in exchange for not posting the video elsewhere online or sharing it with the victim’s friends, colleagues or family members.
You can avoid becoming a victim of a webcam sextortion scam during COVID-19 (and beyond) by remembering the following tips:
- Slow down! Be skeptical of anyone who actively tries to pursue sexually explicit conversations with you shortly after you meet online.
- Keep your guard up when you meet new people through online dating apps and social media and be careful when the interaction moves to a new platform.
- Pay attention to written and visual clues that someone is not who they claim to be.
- Protect your privacy by not giving out personal information too soon.
- Assume that any sexually explicit video or images you record or send to someone can and will be used against you.
Below, I will walk you through each tip in more detail. Let us first start with a common online sextortion scam and scenario we encounter.
Online Sextortion Example: A Common Scenario We Encounter
John Smith is a married executive. One day he notices that someone he does not recognize has added him on Facebook and messaged him. He checks out her profile and sees pictures of an attractive woman. Bored, lonely or just plain curious, he responds to her message and they strike up a conversation that soon turns sexual.
The woman then suggests they continue their conversation on Skype and brings up the subject of communicating via webcam. The woman appears to be a beautiful and willing partner, so he follows her directions to perform sexual acts on camera.
At some point, John reveals where he lives and works and other personal information (which may already be accessible through his Facebook profile). Shortly after the video chat ends, John receives a message on Facebook or Skype telling him that the entire encounter was recorded by a “hacker.” This cryptic message is accompanied by images or video that shows the footage from his webcam.
Sometimes it may also include a link to a YouTube video of the footage which identifies him by name. The message also includes a threat to share the images or video with John’s wife, his work colleagues, his Facebook friends and the general public unless John makes a payment to a random account based in Morocco, the Philippines or some other foreign country.
Now, let us turn to five tips to follow to avoid becoming a victim of sextortion webcam scams during COVID-19 and beyond.
The key to most sextortion webcam scams is the ability to strike fast and move on to the next victim. Most sextortion webcam scams are not particularly sophisticated. Scammers create fake identities to quickly befriend or seduce their victims and then trick them into performing sex acts in front of their webcam. It is a numbers game, so scammers prey on individuals who are immediately receptive to the promise of instant sexual gratification.
With so many people bored, lonely and looking for human connection these days, these scams are increasing. But no matter how desirable and sincere someone appears online, there is no replacement for face to face interaction. If you encounter someone new online, be very wary of strangers who actively pursue sexual conversations with you shortly after meeting them.
Do Not Let Your Guard Down With New Online Friends & Acquaintances
Most of our clients who have fallen victim to sextortion webcam scams, tell us that it all started when they responded to an expression of interest from an attractive woman on an online dating platform or social media.
Sextortion on Dating Apps
Remember that online dating websites always start out as interactions between strangers. Sextortion scammers will often create fake profiles featuring attractive women on legitimate dating websites such as:
- Match (Match.com),
- Plenty of Fish (PlentyofFish.com),
- Hinge (Hinge.co), and others
These sextortionists then target numerous male profiles with expressions of interest.
Regardless of the type of relationship you are seeking, be very wary of profiles who immediately send you unsolicited sexual images that they claim are pictures of themselves. This is often a tool used by scammers to quickly steer the conversation in a sexual direction and lower the guard of the intended victim.
Be careful not to provide personal information about yourself which would allow someone to easily identify your real name and identity just from viewing your profile, such as listing the name of your employer or posting photographs of you at a work function wearing a nametag. Sextortion scammers can use this information to research your potential ability to pay a ransom and also to determine the contact information of people close to you.
Some dating apps such as Match.com and eharmony.com have recently launched a video chat feature within their platforms to facilitate interactions that allow for social distancing. This feature provides an alternative to taking conversations offline to other platforms which would give the person more ways to contact you.
According to eharmony, the benefit of their Video Date feature is that “no member will be forced to exchange private information, such as phone numbers, nor will they be faced with the additional safety concerns associated with moving to an external platform.” This feature provides another way for you to size up new people and help weed out sextortion scammers before you exchange personal information.
Social Media & Facebook Sextortion
Another common way that sextortion scammers engage their victims is through Facebook and other social media websites. Be particularly skeptical when you receive a Facebook friend request from someone you seemingly have no contacts with who then strikes up a conversation with sexual themes.
Since most people have Facebook profiles that are connected to their real names, be particularly careful when interacting with strangers who reach out to you through this platform. If someone contacts you on Facebook, ask for their name and Google it to see if they have any digital footprint outside of this platform. Depending on what else they share with you about their background, the lack of any additional online or social media presence may be a red flag.
Once the conversation has started, sextortion scammers will often suggest moving to another platform like Whatsapp, Skype or Google Hangouts Meet to exchange videos or images. The victim is then led to believe that he is interacting in real time with a woman. The reality is that he is actually interacting with a prerecorded video and in the heat of the moment does not notice.
If you find yourself interacting with someone new through one of these apps or platforms, always ask them to perform real-time actions like holding up a certain number of fingers. This is an effective litmus test to determine whether or not you are interacting with a prerecorded video. Even if the person is live, remain skeptical.
Pay Attention to Written & Visual Clues that Someone Is Not Who They Claim to Be
Pay Attention to the Conversation
When chatting with your new “friend,” notice not only what they are saying but how they are saying it.
Many sextortion scammers are based in places like Morocco and the Philippines. Watch out for poor grammar which could indicate the individual is a non-native speaker and not based in the U.S.
If someone claims to be from your geographic area, but their grammar is incorrect and it appears they are not speaking in what they claim to be their native language, pay attention to the disconnect.
Do not ignore the red flags just because you are attracted to the person in pictures or video.
Pay Attention to Images & Media
At Minc Law, we recommend conducting a reverse image search of the social media or online dating profile that has contacted you. Remember, sextortion scammers typically target numerous people with the same scam. Some scammers will recycle the same material over and over, so you may find that the same picture that caught your attention is also available on a website dedicated to exposing scams.
Take a few minutes to conduct a reverse image search of any images you receive through Google Images. Sextortion scammers will often use stock photos or explicit sexual images that can easily be found elsewhere online through a quick reverse image search. If someone sends you an unsolicited generic message, search that phrase too. To conduct a reverse image search on Google:
- Upload the suspicious picture to Google Images;
- Drag and drop the picture into Google Images; or
- Search Google Images with the picture’s URL.
Taking five minutes to do some quick research now could save you a lot of grief later on.
Protect Your Online Accounts & Privacy
Be very careful what personal information you share with individuals you have just met online. Check your online privacy settings and make sure you have selected filters that will prevent people you do not know from viewing information like your friends list, photographs, and private information in your online profiles.
Let us take a look at how you can update your privacy settings on Facebook to better protect yourself against online sextortionists.
How to Update Your Facebook Privacy Settings
To update your privacy settings on Facebook:
- Select Settings in the top right corner of Facebook
- Select Privacy in the left hand column
- Review your activity (who can see your future posts, review posts and pictures you are tagged in)
- Review how people can find and contact you (who can send you friend requests, who can look you up using your email address, who can see your friends list)
Here is how to update your privacy settings on several other commonly used dating apps and websites, including Match, Tinder, MillionaireMatch, OkCupid, PlentyOfFish and Zoosk. Most popular online dating apps require users to upgrade to a paid account to enable privacy features, such as the ability to search for matches in incognito mode and only appear visible for persons they have liked or messaged.
Do Not Give Out Your Real Phone Number or Email Address
Create a Google number and a throwaway email address to use when interacting for the first time with people you do not know online – particularly if you have no way to verify that the information they have provided to you about their actual identity is accurate.
Before you engage with a new stranger on a video chat, have both of the safeguards in place to slow down the scammer’s ability to find ways to harass you later.
Remember, scammers are looking for an easy win. The more roadblocks you throw up to prevent them from using your personal information against you, the less likely you are to be scammed.
Assume Your Webcam (and What You Use It For) Will Be Used Against You
Our clients range from single men trying to keep explicit videos from being sent to their employers to married pastors trying to avoid being shamed in front of their congregation. No one who falls victim to sextortion web scams ever thinks it could happen to them. Then it does.
Even if you take all of the precautions above, there are still many ways for sextortion “webscammers” to learn about your true identity and set their sights on you as a potential victim. The most effective line of defense is to simply remember that EVERYTHING you do in front of your webcam could be recorded and used against you. It is that simple.
Weigh the costs BEFORE you engage in any sexual conversations or perform sexual acts in front of your webcam for strangers and DO NOT do it. If you decide to perform sexual acts or send sexual images to a stranger online, never show your face or use your actual name or phone number.
If you do find yourself in a situation where someone is trying to extort you for money because of a webcam scam, do not panic and do not pay any money. Remember, in the vast majority of online sextortion situations, these scammers will move on to their next victim if you do not respond to their threats.
We recommend reading up on the best practices to combat online extortion and sextortion, along with our article on how to deal with sextortion on the Internet, to better arm yourself against online perpetrators.
We Can Put an End to Online Sextortion
Sextortion is one of the most devastating yet preventable issues our clients face. Sadly, with increased time spent online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, scammers are yet another threat to be wary of. There is no way to guarantee that you will never be targeted by a sextortion webcam scam, but if you follow the tips in this article, you can still enjoy your time online without becoming a victim.
Attorney Nadeen Hayden did a great job in dealing with an individual that was extorting/blackmailing me. From the initial onboarding and early actions taken, to handling a couple of curveballs encountered along the way, she addressed the matter with both timeliness and professionalism resulting in the individual ceasing the activity and not releasing any potentially embarrassing or damaging information.
JD,Nov 9, 2019
Our practice is dedicated to stopping embarrassing, intimate, and private information and media from being released online, putting an end to extortionate threats as quickly as possible, and removing damaging content (should it be released). We understand when it comes to online extortion and sextortion that time is of the essence, and know how to act quickly before damage is done.
We can help you take control of the situation, provide guidance on how to best respond and handle the threats and extortion, and ensure that you stay at the helm of crafting your online narrative.
Reach out to us via our online chat or contact form, or by calling us at (216) 373-7706, to schedule your free, initial no-obligation consultation.