Anybody can fall victim to extortion on the internet. As online extortionists become savvier, you need to learn how to avoid being extorted online and becoming their next victim.
Ten effective ways to avoid becoming the target of extortion on the internet include:
- Know how to spot common extortion scams;
- Arm yourself with knowledge of who to report to if you spot online extortion;
- Password protect your devices;
- Cover your webcam;
- Do not click links in unsolicited emails, texts, or social media messages;
- Install a firewall or antivirus software;
- Monitor your online presence;
- Change your passwords frequently;
- Update your security and privacy settings;
- Be careful about what you share online and with whom; and
At Minc Law, we have extensive experience and proven success in combating online extortion attacks. We give our clients back peace of mind by stopping extortion attempts, preventing the release of highly sensitive (and embarrassing) images and videos, working with local law enforcement to hold extortionists accountable for their actions, and monitoring the internet for future attacks.
In this article we will discuss common types of extortion, how to spot popular online extortion scams, what to do if you become a victim of online extortion, and who you can turn to for help.
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Common Types of Online Extortion
Extortion is a felony in all states. Although the exact definition varies by state, extortion refers to the gaining of property or money by force or threats. The threats can take various forms, but the most common are threats of:
- Violence to a person or their loved one,
- Damage to personal property, or
- Releasing personal or private information, like nude or explicit photos or social security numbers.
How Does Being the Victim of Extortion Online Differ From Being the Victim of Extortion in the More Traditional Sense?
A traditional example of extortion is someone in organized crime offering “protection” to a shop owner in exchange for a monthly fee. The underlying threat is that if the offer of protection is turned down, the shop or shop owner will be harmed. Traditional extortion is generally not a public event, but rather a private threat of harm.
Online extortion, also commonly referred to as cyber extortion, can take many forms on the internet, but often the threat is the release of private or explicit photos unless a sum of money is paid. With the advent of the digital age, the means of extortion have evolved.
Unlike traditional extortion, the threat of online extortion is very public. And in the digital world, information and data spread faster than ever before. This means that a compromising photo or information can reach thousands, even millions, of people in seconds.
Online extortion can happen to anyone. Cybercriminals are professional scammers. They know how to coerce unknowing victims into doing what they want. What may start as a harmless flirtation could turn into a steamy video, recorded for prosperity by the scammer.
Sometimes even opening an unknown attachment can lead to extortion. The attachment can add a bug to your computer that tracks your every online move. Or the bug might hack into your webcam, allowing compromising shots of you to be taken without your knowledge.
Sometimes the extortionist or blackmailer does not actually have any compromising material on you but can make you believe they do by claiming they have hacked your webcam.
What Are the Different Types of Online Extortion & How Can They Hurt You?
Sextortion (Sexual Extortion)
One of the most common forms of extortion in today’s digital age is sextortion.
In a sextortion scam, the extortionist threatens to release the victim’s explicit images or videos to the victim’s friends and family in exchange for payment. The payment may be in the form of money, bitcoin, in providing more explicit photos, or even in sexual favors.
This form of extortion can cause severe mental anguish. Most victims are embarrassed, ashamed, and do not know who to turn to for help. Many victims will send payment, thinking the extortionist will go away. However, paying the demand opens the door to further demands.
Email extortion is another very common scam that is sometimes linked to data breaches. In this scam, the extortionist will claim to have hacked into the victim’s computer or taken control of their webcam and recorded unsavory activity.
They will threaten to release the compromising information to the recipient’s contact list unless payment is made, usually in the form of Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency.
Often, the email extortionist will attempt to “prove” that they have compromising material by revealing a compromised account password from prior large-scale data breaches or hacks. Because the extortion emails reveal an actual password used by the victim, they can seem legitimate.
These scams tend to affect less savvy internet users, typically minors, seniors, or other vulnerable groups.
Blackmail (including internet blackmail) is a form of extortion where someone threatens to release private and sensitive information about the victim to obtain money, goods, or services. Sextortion is a form of blackmail, but blackmail does not have to involve explicit images.
For example, a customer may try to blackmail a company into free goods or services with the threat of publishing fake or negative reviews about their business.
Threats of Defamation
Defamation refers to a false statement about an individual or business that is damaging to the individual’s reputation.
In today’s digital world, a person’s or business’s online reputation is hugely important. A negative or fake online review about a company can tank its business. A false allegation against an individual can destroy their personal life or job prospects.
Blackmailers know this and will threaten to spread harmful information – perhaps a flood of negative reviews or allegations of an affair – unless a ransom of some kind is paid.
What Else Should You Know About Online Extortion?
Online extortion is booming. In 2020, The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) issued its annual Internet Crime Report.
The IC3 reported that victims in the United States alone lost $4.2 billion in internet-related crimes. This was a 20 percent increase from 2019’s $3.5 billion in losses. Extortion was in the top three crimes leading to these losses.
Reported cases of online extortion also jumped significantly from prior years. In 2020, there were over 76,500 cases of reported online extortion. In the prior year, there were just over 43,000.
The bottom line, online extortion is prevalent, lucrative, and growing fast. Extortionists devote their lives to scamming, and they can be good at it. They have a wide variety of tricks and methods that they can deploy. Anyone can fall victim to online extortion, even people who have malware protection or think they know the warning signs.
Common Ways Cybercriminals Try to Extort You
What Are the Different Means & Methods That a Cybercriminal Can Use to Try to Extort Information From You?
One of the reasons why extortion is so prevalent is because of the number of ways that a cybercriminal can try to extort information from the victim. Here are some of the most common ways.
Sextortion & Webcam Coercion
During the pandemic, more people have been confined to their homes and home computers. Unable to meet people in real life, many users turn to social media sites and dating websites to find someone special.
For instance, with Facebook sextortion, a stranger might spark a conversation on Facebook with a victim. At first, the conversation is innocent, but the perpetrator then gains the victim’s trust, eventually convincing them to have an intimate video chat or send nude photos. Things then take a turn for the worst, with the extortionist threatening to share the images unless their demands are met.
In addition, as parents try to balance working from home and schooling their children, children are increasingly exposed to unsupervised screen time. This has led to a massive increase in sextortion cases with children. In some groups, the rates of extortion have risen to 88% for children.
Ransomware extortion schemes have also risen sharply since the pandemic. In a ransomware attack, the perpetrator infests the victim’s computer with ransomware using a variety of tactics. One common tactic is tricking the user into clicking on a malicious link from an email attachment.
Once the ransomware makes it onto the user’s computer, it either encrypts the user’s files or otherwise prevents the user from accessing them. The perpetrator then demands payment, usually in the form of Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, before returning access.
In May 2021, Colonial Pipeline, the largest oil pipeline system in the United States, paid a ransomware group nearly $5 million to restore their computer network and prevent the release of 100 gigabytes of data after a cyberattack crippled their billing system.
Hospitals are a common target of these schemes, and the demands for money are high. In one recent scheme, the hackers demanded $5 million from a private clinic to unlock their systems. However, anyone can be subject to these schemes, including individuals.
Often, the perpetrators will not only encrypt the files but also steal the data in what is known as a double extortion scheme. The perpetrators can then demand a ransom to decrypt the data and to prevent leaking the stolen information.
Hacking is similar to a ransomware attack except the perpetrator enters the victim’s computer manually. Once in the device or online accounts, the hacker will troll through the user’s files to steal or obtain content about them.
This technique is especially popular with cloud-based devices and social media platforms. For instance, someone may hack into the victim’s Snapchat account then leak sensitive photos to porn sites or other online sources.
If you are the target of online extortion, sextortion or revenge porn on snapchat, we highly recommend reporting the snapchat account responsible and seeking the assistance of an internet extortion attorney for content removal.
Companies can hold vast amounts of information about their users. Their credit card company, favorite social media site, online shopping choices – all of these sites may have access to the user’s name, address, credit card information, and other personal details.
These companies can be targets of data breaches. The stolen data can then be sold on the dark web. Extortionists capitalize on this information by attempting to coerce victims of the data breach.
Often they will claim to have even more data than they actually do, including potentially harmful data, and threaten to share this with family or friends unless a ransom is paid.
Scammers often create fake websites that look like legitimate ones in the hopes the victim will enter their password or other personal information.
For instance, a user may receive an email stating that their Amazon account has been deactivated, or that their PayPal account needs attention. The email will have a link for the user to follow. The website then asks them to enter their password to reactivate the account.
If the victim reuses the same password on multiple websites, the hackers can use the login information to log in to other sites and obtain personal information about the victim. This personal information can then be used in extortion attempts.
Distributed Denial of Services attacks (or DDoS attacks) are directed at companies. Using bots, extortionists will flood the company’s website with requests. The sheer number of requests jams up the company’s servers to such an extent that legitimate consumers cannot access the website.
Extortionists can keep the onslaught going for days, potentially costing businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars as frustrated potential clients are forced to go elsewhere for their purchases. The perpetrators demand payment to stop the flood and open the company’s website back up.
How to Spot Online Extortion
Extortionists are clever. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if you are being drawn into an extortion scheme. However, here are some key factors to watch out for.
What Are Some Key Factors to Look For in Deciding Whether or Not Internet Activity is Online Extortion?
The Language is Suspicious
If something is too good to be true, it usually is. It is highly unlikely that a relative you never heard of has left you millions, or that a bank or foreign government is contacting you directly to turn over your long-lost money, or that a model needs your help with, well, anything.
In addition, watch for grammar. Extortionists are often from foreign countries, making the language of their emails sound stilted. If the email just does not read right, there is a good chance it is an extortion attempt.
You Are Asked to Move to a Different Social Media Platform
Sextortionists follow a familiar pattern. A stranger will contact you on social media, and then ask to move the conversation over to another platform.
Once on the other platform, they will then ask you to send them intimate images or videos, which they will record and threaten to share unless you pay them. There are numerous warning signs baked in here.
- First, be wary of requests from strangers online.
- Second, your suspicions should be raised if you are asked to follow a stranger to another social media platform.
- Third, strangers that insist or demand you jump on a video call should sound the alarm bells.
- Finally, be incredibly cautious when asked to share nude or compromising photos. These are all signs of an extortion scam in the works.
The Email is Unsolicited
An unsolicited email from a bank, company, or unknown individual should raise warning flags. If you get an email that your account has been deactivated or suspended, it is almost certainly not legitimate.
If you get an email like this from a company, like Amazon, check the email address it is being sent from. A legitimate email from a company should have the company’s name with a .com or .org. If it does not, it is certainly spam.
The Stranger Asks You to Download Something or Change Your Settings
Be cautious of what kinds of sites you visit. Do not allow any site to download anything or make changes to your settings. This could just be another attempt to hack into your system.
What Do You Do if You Spot Online Extortion?
If you think an internet site you are visiting is suspicious, leave the page you are visiting immediately.
If the extortion appears to be an email scam, do not click on any links, open any attachments, or otherwise engage with the sender. You can delete the email and put filters in place to prevent these from reaching your inbox again. You can find a walkthrough on how to filter spam from your inbox.
In the event, you are being extorted, or someone is trying to extort you, do not engage further with the extortionist. Document all existing communications with the extortionist. Preserve any evidence that you may have. This may include screenshots of profiles, conversations, and demands.
File a report with the authorities. Depending on your situation, that might be the FBI, Internet Crimes Complaint Center (IC3), Better Business Bureau, INTERPOL, or another internet crime-related organization.
Finally, do not give in to the extortionist’s demands. Instead, seek professional help for guidance on what to do.
You can find more details about who to report extortion to in paralegal Dayra Lomba’s post ‘How to Report Sextortion on the Internet’.
Do Online Extortionists Follow Through on Their Threats?
The vast majority of extortionists will never follow through on their threats of exposure. By exposing the harmful information, they lose their leverage on the victim. They also are more likely to draw the attention of local law enforcement.
However, some extortionists do follow through, so all threats should be taken seriously. If someone is attempting to extort you, you should enlist the help of a professional and contact the appropriate authorities.
For further reading, make sure to check out this comprehensive article,‘Do Sextortionists Follow Through?’ as well as our video on the subject, What Are the Chances a Sextortionist Releases My Intimate Images & Videos?
How to Protect Yourself From Online Extortion
There are numerous effective steps you can take to prevent extortion attacks and protect yourself if you find yourself in the midst of an extortion attempt.
How Do You Prevent Online Extortion Attempts or Attacks?
Be Cautious About What You Share Online
Be extremely wary when meeting or chatting with new people online. Never share compromising photos of yourself or confidential information about yourself online, particularly with people you do not know.
The more information you put out there, the more information extortionists have to work with. You never know who is just looking for information on you, so think before you post!
Talk to and educate your children about online scams. Extortionists often prey on the young and vulnerable. Teach your children about how to stay safe online.
Password Protect All of Your Devices & Change Them Frequently
It only takes a moment for an unattended device to be compromised. Protect your valuable information by password protecting all devices.
Change your passwords every three to six months. Make sure you choose strong passwords with a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols.
Keep an Eye Out For Phishing Attacks
You also want to be cautious about phishing attacks. The golden rule is never to click links in unsolicited emails, texts, or social media messages. Educate yourself on the latest scams going around.
The Federal Trade Commission keeps a current list of recent scam alerts as does the FBI and AARP. You can also google language from an email that seems suspicious to see if others have reported a similar scam.
Remember, no company will ask you to give out information like your social security number or credit card number over email. If somebody does, it is a scam or phishing attack.
Put a Sticker Over Your Webcam When Not in Use
In the event your computer is hijacked, you do not want your moves being tracked unknowingly.
Placing a sticker over your webcam, or closing your laptop when not in use, will keep hackers from seeing your private moments.
Monitor Your Name & Online Presence
Be on top of potential online attacks by being aware of your online presence. Set up a Google Alert with your name or business name.
You might also look into a professional digital risk protection plan to monitor your name and online presence.
Install a Firewall & Antivirus Software
If you accidentally click on a suspicious link, you want to be sure that your computer is protected. Have firewall and antivirus software installed on your computers.
These programs will monitor and alert you of threats. It will also help block outsiders from gaining access to private information on your computer.
Update Your Security & Privacy Settings
Check your settings on your social media accounts to make sure you are not sharing more information with the world than you want to.
You can also set up two-step verification on your email accounts and major websites such as Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook to better protect your accounts.
Keep Backups of Important Data & Files
Businesses can further protect themselves from online extortion by keeping a backup of data and files and creating backup bandwidth capabilities.
Businesses also need to be careful about who they share information with. Only the most trusted employees should have access to confidential information, and these employees should be thoroughly vetted and background checked.
Consider Cyber Extortion Insurance Coverage
You can also consider getting cyber extortion insurance coverage. This may be particularly useful for businesses, which stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars from a successful extortion scheme.
What Do You Do if You Find Yourself Having Potentially Fallen into an Online Extortion Trap?
Remember, extortionists are professionals. Even when being cautious, people still fall victim to extortionists. Here is what to do if you find yourself in an extortion trap.
Report the Extortion to Authorities
If you find that you have fallen into an online extortion scheme, report the extortion to the authorities. Depending on the type of extortion, the organization you report to will vary.
Some of the most effective places to report extortion include:
Do Not Engage With the Extortionist
Although it may be tempting, do not engage with extortionists. Do not try to negotiate with them. Do not try to persuade them to leave you alone. Do not send them any money or additional images.
Engaging with the perpetrator will not end the problem, it will only make it worse as they continue to try to extort more and more from you.
Preserve All Evidence
Preserve all evidence that you have. Screenshot all conversations, profile pictures, contact information, offensive content, or anything other communications with the extortionist. You can do this for free from your phone or computer using the screenshot feature.
Alternatively, you can use a more advanced tool to preserve data, such as Visualping or Page Vault.
Fortify Your Online Accounts
After you have preserved the information, lock down all your social media accounts. If you have not already, set your profile to private. Remove and block the extortionists from all your accounts.
Contact Your Financial Institution
If you think your financial information has been compromised, call your financial institution right away. Use the lock feature on your credit cards. Most institutions have an app where you can lock your card right from your phone.
Freeze Your Credit
You can also put a temporary freeze on your credit report, which will prevent the extortionist from opening up any new cards on your social security number. This will help prevent your credit score from tanking.
Keep in mind that for as long as your credit report is frozen, you will not be able to open a new line of credit either unless you remove the freeze.
Work With an Experienced Online Extortion Attorney
Extortionists can wreak havoc on your personal, financial, and professional life. If you are dealing with an extortionist, you may want to seek professional help with stopping the cyber attack and reach out to an experienced online extortion attorney.
To locate an experienced attorney who specifically deals with online extortion and internet crimes, we recommend searching:
- Your local bar association,
- Popular legal databases such as Avvo, Martindale-Hubbel, and Lawyers.com, and
- Google, with targeted keywords (ex. “Online extortion lawyer + Ohio).
We also recommend reaching out to friends, co-workers, or family for referrals.
For further reading, make sure to check out our comprehensive article explaining how much an online extortion lawyer costs.
How Minc Law Can Help You & Your Online Extortion Concerns
Our experienced attorneys act fast to stop extortion and give you peace of mind. They can guide you through the process and educate you on how to protect yourself in the future.
At Minc Law, we have years of experience and success in stopping extortion attempts. We have a proven track record of stopping our clients’ most personal information from being released and putting an end to extortion threats. We also monitor the internet for future attacks, giving our clients peace of mind.
“Minc Law and Dan Powell worked closely with us to get defamatory material removed from social media sites. We would not have been able to get this accomplished without them. They are true professionals, and have the resources and skills to guide clients through the process to a successful resolution.”
Jen Duncan, March 4, 2022
Hiring Minc Law shows your extortionist that you will not give in to their demands. It also puts them on the defensive, letting them know that there are consequences for their illegal actions.
If you would like to learn more about our services and schedule an attorney consultation, call us at (216) 373-7706 and speak with a paralegal, message a live chat representative, or fill out our online contact form today.