The Key Red Flags of Sextortion Assistance Services Featured Image

The Key Red Flags of Sextortion Assistance Services

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    Victims of online sextortion are often overcome with a toxic mixture of strong emotions – shame, fear, panic, confusion, helplessness – which are weaponized by those seeking to extract money payments. Unfortunately, these bad actors are not limited to the criminals directly extorting their victims. They include some sextortion assistance services who purposefully push on the victim’s pain points to coerce agreement to service contracts for excessive fees and other unconscionable terms.

    When researching and considering your options for sextortion assistance services, there are several red flags which should give you serious pause:

    • The service contacts you to offer its assistance;
    • The sales strategy targets the same emotions weaponized by the extortionists;
    • You are discouraged from contacting law enforcement;
    • You are not able to speak directly with and easily verify the true identity of the individual who will be handling your matter;
    • The ‘professionals’ at the service are not licensed or regulated by any oversight body;
    • The business has no physical address and you are not able to meet the people you hire in person if you so choose; or
    • Online reviews and discussion forums raise other concerns from actual previous clients about the quality of service.

    At Minc Law, the mission is to provide peace of mind in the digital world. Our core values – professionalism, results, empathy, and loyalty – are the guiding principles in the legal services we offer to the public. We seek to eliminate your pain points, not push on them. If our services are not needed, we will tell you so. When our services are desired, clients will be scheduled to speak directly with one of our attorneys.

    Each Minc Law attorney is professionally licensed and bound by the rules applicable to the legal profession. Sextortion victims who contact our firm are matched with an experienced attorney who personally handles their matter, communicating directly with the client and directly confronting the criminal actors.

    In this article, we discuss the various types of services marketed toward sextortion victims. We then examine in more depth the red flags to avoid when seeking professional assistance for online sextortion.

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    Sextortion: A Pandemic that Grew Out of a Pandemic

    Sextortion schemes existed before the COVID-19 pandemic but absolutely exploded in frequency and effectiveness while most of the world was locked down and more and more people came to rely on the Internet for human interaction.

    The victims of sextortion have very few common identifiable traits. They come from a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds and geographic locations, and are engaged in various professions. The attorneys at Minc Law have represented people from all walks of life – CEOs, doctors, other attorneys, and even reputation management experts – who have fallen victim to the same malicious scam.

    The perpetrators are also a diverse bunch. Countless cells around the globe, all operating independent of any centralized control, follow the same general blueprint. They do so because it works. And, as it continually proves to be incredibly effective and profitable, the tactics are only becoming more sophisticated and the victims less random.

    What is Sextortion?

    Sextortion occurs when demands for something of value are made under threat of publishing or otherwise sharing explicit images or other intimate information of a sexual nature.

    While it can come in a multitude of forms, the garden variety sextortion typically begins when you meet a stranger online, most commonly through social media, a messaging app, or an online dating website.

    The conversation quickly turns flirtatious. Excessive flattery is used to elicit either nude photographs, explicit video, and/or raunchy messages from you. Once that compromising material is obtained, the flirtation ends and the extortion begins. They threaten to publish or otherwise share your intimate images, video, or other private information unless you comply with their ransom demands. Many people panic and pay with false assurances of deletion, but quickly learn that doing so only encourages more threats and demands.

    Before you even realize you are being extorted, the perpetrators have likely already done their research on you. They have learned where you live and work, your marital or relationship status, and other information they intend to weaponize. One of their favorite tactics is to take screenshots of your friends lists on Facebook, Instagram, etc.

    The scheme’s success is entirely dependent on your fear and panic, as well as your ability to pay. There are two traits in victims which these criminals are looking for above all else: vulnerability and capability. Their plan fails if their victims are not both vulnerable to their threats and capable of paying their demands. Those victims who demonstrate both traits earn the strong focus and attention of the perpetrators of the scheme.

    Common Sources of Sextortion

    Sextortion schemes originate on a multitude of internet platforms. Some common sources include:

    • Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Snapchat;
    • Messaging apps like Google Chat, Skype, and Whatsapp;
    • Random emails and texts;
    • Dating apps such as Tinder, Grindr, Seeking, Ashley Madison, and Hinge;
    • Escort websites similar to Backpage or Backlist; and
    • Video games with a chat component, such as Minecraft or Fortnite.

    Tips to Avoid Sextortion Scams

    To avoid falling victim to a sextortion scam, we recommend remembering the following tips when interacting with others online:

    • Be suspicious of strangers online—especially if they are quick to send you flirtatious messages or explicit images;
    • Do not interact with strangers online when you are in a vulnerable state (e.g. lonely or intoxicated);
    • Be wary of new “friends” who eagerly ask to move your conversation to another platform or app, especially one with video chat functions;
    • Do not open attachments or click on links from strangers;
    • Avoid sending intimate images of yourself online or via text;
    • Turn off your electronics and cover your webcams when not in use; and
    • Maximize the privacy settings on all of your social media accounts so that your friends list and personal information cannot be viewed by the public.

    To learn more about preventing sextortion, see our in-depth guide: “How to Spot & Avoid Sextortion Scams.”

    What Services Are Available for Sextortion Assistance?

    Coinciding with the rising threat of sextortion is an increasing variety of offerings for sextortion assistance. These services can perhaps be best categorized into three high-level categories:

    Government & Law Enforcement Agencies

    Several government agencies will receive and handle reports of sextortion and other online crimes. Federal and local law enforcement agencies, including your local officials, will have means for you to report the incident and commonly offer educational resources to help victims of sextortion.

    Of course, a variety of factors can dictate how much attention any given report may receive and the speed with which any responsive action is deployed. Victims who are minors certainly have to be high on the priority list for these government agencies which do not possess unlimited resources. Another set of incidents that will likely be prioritized are those where the victim has self-harmed. Yet another may be when a very significant amount of money (e.g. in excess of $50,000) has already been paid by the victim.

    Unlike any available private service, law enforcement agencies can directly prosecute and actually imprison the perpetrators. These efforts can include collaboration with foreign agencies around the world. And the services are, of course, free.

    Options for reporting sextortion and helpful educational resources may be found at:

    • The FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center (IC3),
    • INTERPOL,
    • Canadian Centre for Cybersecurity,
    • National Crime Agency (UK), and
    • Your local law enforcement agency.

    If nothing else, your reporting of the incident will hopefully contribute to a growing database which someday may be used to more effectively combat, and even possibly prevent, sextortion. For that reason, we consider it a good public service to supply the proper law enforcement agencies with as much information as possible about sextortion scams.

    Non-Profit Organizations

    Many non-profit organizations are dedicated to educating the public about the risks of sextortion and providing some level of assistance. Many of these non-profits collaborate with law enforcement to make sure victims receive proper support.

    These organizations often create educational programs, awareness campaigns, and training seminars. They may allow victims to connect with each other and share their stories, generating a sense of empowerment and community.

    Some of the most prominent non-profits providing sextortion assistance services and/or resources include:

    • Cyber Civil Rights Initiative,
    • Thorn,
    • Without My Consent (WMC),
    • Polaris Project,
    • Attorney General’s Cyber Exploitation Task Force,
    • Thinkuknow,
    • Samaritans,
    • Crash Override,
    • HeartMob,
    • Revenge Porn Helpline,
    • PAPYRUS, and
    • Get Safe Online.

    We commonly recommend our clients enlist the help of StopNCII, which is a service offering a user-friendly platform and helpful tools and resources to victims of non-consensual intimate image abuse.

    Private For-Profit Services

    Private for-profit services can offer a level of service and urgency many sextortion victims seek. But be very cautious. While there are certainly many highly ethical for-profit services that valuably assist sextortion victims, there are an alarmingly high number of services that take advantage of their client’s pain and distress to maximize their own profit.

    Legal Professionals

    Unlike other for-profit services, attorneys are ethically bound to always act in their clients’ best interests. Attorneys are subject to strict regulatory oversight and are required to abide by rules of professional conduct.

    These rules prohibit excessive fees and unconscionable terms. Client inquiries must be promptly answered, confidentiality must be maintained, and conflicts of interest must be avoided.

    If an attorney mishandles your matter, you have the option to file a report with the state disciplinary council and/or sue the attorney for malpractice.

    There is nearly nothing (within the bounds of the law) an attorney cannot do which a non-attorney can offer for assistance with sextortion. Conversely, although lawsuits are rarely needed, when one is, an attorney can prepare, file, and prosecute it on your behalf. Perhaps most importantly, attorneys can issue subpoenas and formal legal notices to the online platforms on which the perpetrators conduct their business, obtaining the necessary user data and subscriber information to identify and locate those individuals.

    All of these reasons provide an attorney with significant leverage while communicating directly with the people extorting the attorney’s client. Once the message is convincingly sent that the hunter risks becoming the hunted, the perpetrators will almost always back off. If they do not, then formal legal action can be taken to protect your interests.

    For that reason, the quickest and most effective way to address sextortion, and put an end to it, is to hire an attorney with significant experience combating the problem.

    Non-Legal ORM-Branded Companies

    Many private, for-profit companies hold themselves out as possessing some level of special expertise in online reputation management (ORM), digital forensic work, and/or cyber investigations. Several specifically advertise and offer sextortion assistance services.

    Some of these services are quite good at what they do and have obtained many positive results for their clients. But it is this sub-category where the most red flags will be found. These largely unregulated professions are inevitably littered with bad actors seeking to prey on the weak and vulnerable.

    Victims of sextortion who are in a state of panic are commonly willing to pay whatever it takes to make the traumatizing experience end. They lose the ability to think rationally for themselves and are easily sold on levels of service they do not need, for an obscene fee they should not have to pay.

    No matter the urgency which understandably leads to this sense of desperation, sextortion victims should perform something more than minimal due diligence with a keen eye towards the types of red flags discussed in this article before retaining any for-profit company to provide sextortion assistance services.

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    Red Flags of Sextortion Assistance Services

    Many victims of sextortion, for a variety of reasons, are understandably not able to process and effectively deal with the predicament in which they find themselves. But yet they are too embarrassed to seek support. The perpetrators target this vulnerability and aim to compound the emotional trauma through repeated and seemingly never-ending threatening messages and phone calls. The victim panics and pays the demands, desperate for the pain to end. Then the cycle starts all over again.

    When the victim does finally seek assistance from an outside source, those same vulnerabilities can lead to a “blood in the water” type effect which attracts certain “sharks” who are inevitably lurking.

    Unfortunately, there is no shortage of self-proclaimed reputation management and digital investigation services which offer assistance but their real goal is to financially exploit victims in a time of great stress. The problem is so rampant that, in 2023, the FBI issued a bulletin warning the public against for-profit companies which target sextortion victims.

    Below, we discuss the major red flags to avoid when considering sextortion assistance services. This list is not intended to forewarn of every possible red flag, but does cover the most concerning ones we have identified to date based on the experiences of clients who have hired our law firm after things went awry with another private service.

    Red Flag #1: The Service Contacts You to Offer Its Assistance

    The service initiating contact with you is a major red flag and should be considered a non-starter. There are several questions you need to ask yourself. How would the service know to contact you for this issue? How would it have obtained your name and information? In general, most scams begin with the scammer making initial contact with the victim, right?

    This is actually a ploy we have seen used by accomplices of the criminals who are attempting to extort their victims. Speedy and permanent relief is promised through use of some sort of “proprietary” technologies or tactics. The sales pressure is normally high and an emphasis is placed on worst-case scenarios if they are not hired to assist.

    They may even claim to be trapped inside the sextortion ring, but say they are willing to go against their directives and delete your “file” if you pay them enough so they can “escape” from their servitude. Believe it or not, this “damsel in distress” act can be surprisingly effective.

    In whatever form these solicitations come, the scheme is the same. You are in a state of panic and they offer you the relief you desperately seek, for a price of course. Do not fall for this trick.

    Red Flag #2: The Sales Strategy Targets the Same Emotions Weaponized by the Extortionists

    If you are actively seeking assistance as a victim of sextortion, you are likely experiencing most or all of the emotions mentioned above – shame, fear, panic, confusion, helplessness. The harassing and threatening calls and messages are constant, you are probably sleep-deprived, and your mind is racing with worry about possible impending doom of your relationships, career, and/or reputation. You are in need of someone who will help you make level-headed decisions.

    Be aware of and avoid the services which seek to exploit those pains. They will seek to sell you on a sense of urgency which only stokes your panic. Different plans may be offered, and the more you pay the quicker and more aggressively they promise to act to help you avoid the shame you fear. This a la carte pricing system is designed to maximize profit, with some price levels exponentially higher than what an ethical service should charge for effective sextortion assistance.

    For any fee paid, you should request that the services be itemized in detail. Be certain that the payment for fees has a mechanism for refund should the services not be performed or some other dispute arises.

    Carefully read any contract before signing it, and if possible, have it reviewed by your legal counsel. Inquire as to how and where disputes about the agreement’s terms would be resolved. Be sure you are not agreeing to be subject to jurisdiction in some foreign court. And be weary of compulsory arbitration provisions which restrict your ability and avenues to seek remedy for any breach.

    Furthermore, be very suspicious of requests for payment via unconventional or largely untraceable methods, such as cryptocurrency or gift cards. Legitimate services utilize transparent and traditional billing methods.

    Red Flag #3: You Are Discouraged From Contacting Law Enforcement

    There is no sensible reason to actively discourage a victim of sextortion from contacting law enforcement. Although the authorities may not respond with the urgency and speed that you desire, you should never be directed to not make a report. There is at least some chance that law enforcement may be able to recover money you have paid to the scammers, if such recovery is desired.

    If nothing else, reporting sextortion is about being a responsible citizen by helping law enforcement build a database to track the perpetrators and learn about their tactics. Any information you provide may very well help future victims.

    There always is the fear of unnecessarily “kicking the hornet’s nest” no matter what assistance is enlisted. But while we have had many clients come to us after a private service, intentionally or unintentionally, made the problem worse, we are unaware of any incidents where contacting law enforcement has had an adverse effect.

    Red Flag #4: You Are Not Able to Speak Directly With & Easily Verify the True Identity of the Individual Who Will Be Handling Your Matter

    You should always know and be able to verify the true full name of the individual who will be assisting you. Do not hire, for example, “James F.” or “Bob C.” or anyone else who may be assuming a false identity. You are trusting this individual with sensitive information that is being weaponized against you. They must at least trust you with their true identity. If not, find someone who will.

    All of our attorneys have full biographies listed on our website. You can verify each attorney’s identity through the attorney directory on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website. There, you are able to see the status of their license to practice law and if they have any disciplinary history.

    Trust is a two-way street. Video conferencing should always be an option. You should be able to match the individual’s face you see on the video conference with the picture on the service’s website. And you are best served if you are able to somehow independently verify their identity and professional credentials.

    Red Flag #5: The ‘Professionals’ at the Service Are Not Licensed or Regulated by Any Oversight Body

    Many regulations of private sector businesses are intended to provide consumer protection. Reputable professions such as physicians, therapists, lawyers, accountants, and teachers all have licensure requirements. To obtain a license, one must demonstrate both the fitness and skills needed for the job. To maintain that license, certain minimal standards must be met and enumerated rules must be followed. All of this is done with an eye towards protecting the consumer.

    Unregulated industries present a significant caveat emptor (buyer beware) risk. There are little or no obligations placed on those services beyond what is spelled out in the contract you may have signed under duress. And the enforcement mechanisms of the contract, often found in the fine print, may be severely restricted and the associated cost prohibitively high. There is no oversight body or agency to whom you can report any misconduct or turn to for relief should the arrangement go sideways.

    There is a reason why professions which help others with their most critical issues require their members to be licensed. Knowing a profession is regulated engenders trust of the public by providing critical safeguards for consumer protection.

    Sextortion victims should be extremely wary of any service which cannot cite to regulations outside of the contract that governs its conduct and actions.

    Red Flag #6: The Business Has No Physical Address & You Are Not Able to Meet the People You Hire in Person if You so Choose

    The people who are extorting you are hiding in the shadows of the Internet. You want to avoid any service which operates in a similar manner.

    The physical address for Minc Law is listed on our website and all of our correspondence. Clients are able to come to our office and meet face-to-face with the attorney handling their matter. If this is not possible with the service you are considering hiring, you should wonder why and be concerned.

    Many businesses today are operating out of ‘virtual offices’ which have an address but no physical presence at that address. This scenario raises questions as to the actual location of the service and the individuals through which it operates. That, in turn, makes enforcement of the contract problematic if any relief is ever needed.

    The bottom line is if you cannot shake someone’s hand, you probably should not hire them for any critical service. This is especially true when dealing with an extremely private and sensitive issue such as sextortion.

    Red Flag #7: Online Reviews & Discussion Forums Raise Other Concerns From Actual Previous Clients About the Quality of the Service

    Most reputable organizations will have a significant online footprint. The service’s website or social media profile should be scrutinized because it is too easy to engage in false representations online. Signs of an unprofessional or potentially unethical sextortion assistance service include:

    • A lack of any online reviews;
    • Recent account creation dates;
    • The use of generic stock photos; and
    • Poorly constructed content.

    Services which are proud of their performance will have a Google My Business listing where you can read reviews from other consumers.

    You can also use a search engine (such as Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo) to research the company’s digital footprint and look for any history of complaints. For example, search terms such as “[Company name] reviews” or “[Company name] scam” may reveal other platforms on which its performance is discussed. Just be mindful of self-promotion and other fluff. For instance, glowing articles, especially on paid platforms such as Forbes, should probably be avoided.

    Online discussion forums, such as Reddit, may be another good source of information. But be cautious of comments from individuals with ulterior motives, such as someone who may be adverse to the service in a separate dispute.

    Do not take any single review or comment as gospel. Negative experiences are not always accurately recounted online. Examine and consider the service’s digital footprint in the aggregate and make an informed judgment from that more holistic vantage point.

    Ethical Advocates Who Can Help You Navigate Sextortion

    At Minc Law, we fully understand how overwhelming and stressful it is to be the victimized by sextortion. We aim to give you aid and comfort, providing several options on how to proceed. Some of these options will involve retaining us (or another reputable service) beyond the consultation and other options which will not require any further expense on your part.

    We have helped hundreds of victims navigate this extremely private and sensitive situation. We are proud to say that every one of our clients who are victims of sextortion have been successfully guided to safe harbor.

    If you are a fit for our sextortion assistance services, you will be scheduled for a paid ($500 fee) emergency consultation with one of our attorneys. You will be advised of your risk level and our recommendations based on the information the attorney is able to review and your discussion during the consultation.

    ★★★★★
    “I was unfortunately a victim of an online sextortion scam. After a few weeks of torture, I found Minc Law online. I called them directly and scheduled a consultation meeting with attorney Daniel A Powell. Working with Daniel was smooth as he was very responsive and supportive as well. Daniel and the rest of the Minc Law team took my complaints seriously and understood my emotional state. They were very compassionate when talking with me and understood how to work with people. Daniel and his team dealt with my situation swiftly and resolved my problems within the week. I highly recommend Minc Law and Daniel to anyone who unfortunately got caught in a situation like mine.”

    John

    January 1, 2022

    You can contact us by calling (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.

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