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Australian technology news, reviews, and guides to help you

How to go on the defensive against sextortion scams

A sextortion scam isn’t just something you can get through email, but in social apps, as well. What can you do to go on the defensive, both if it happens to adults and as parents?

Scammers will do anything to get money, and the impact they have can end up with lasting repercussions. Ruining lives isn’t out of the remit for criminals, particularly where money is concerned, and often they’ll do anything to get your money which can mean ruining your life.

A recent story published by the Sydney Morning Herald showed one such situation, whereby an Australian teenager had been pushed to suicide over sextortion messages coming from Nigerian scammers.

It’s a frustratingly heartbreaking story, and one that highlights just how severe some scammer approaches are, particularly in the field of sextortion.

So what is sextortion, and what can you do to stay alert and go on the defensive against the risk of this criminal effort?

What is sextortion?

As the name suggests, sextortion is the practice of extortion using sexually explicit media, be it text, images, or video. It often comes as a result of images being provided to someone over the internet, with that someone then demanding money in exchange for their silence.

Give them the money and they’ll keep any explicit images between them, but don’t and they’ll release the images to your friends and family. It’s extortion plain and simple, and it is happening more and more.

The category started in scams back in 2018, as scammers sent emails that either:

  • Suggested a password to an adult service had been hacked, or
  • You had been filmed in front of your computer.

In either situation, the scam was a bluff, with the hope that the emailed victim would pay up in case the scammer decided to email friends and family members.

Even if it was a bluff, however, the fear could be real, and we’ve seen versions of this scam repeat over the years several times, but it’s usually been over email.

With social media apps, however, scammers are finding more victims.

Sextortion and adults

Adults seem to have to deal with scams on a regular basis, and this just adds to the mess of them. There are so many, and they never stop, with education being the fundamental approach that works against them, and it’s no different with this type of scam, either.

If you get an email suggesting anything like sextortion, delete it and move on. It’s typically just an invoking of fear that scammers are playing on.

But with social media, the scam is slightly different. Instead of a random message from a so-called hacker, the scam is perpetrated by people you might be trying to meet, such as a love interest or a new friend, and that gets into some sticky areas.

If you get a message from a stranger asking for a picture

It’s a little unreasonable to suggest not talking with people online, but if someone you are talking to asks for an image of a personal nature, or even a video, tread carefully.

“People should treat a request for a personal image like they would do personal information such as bank details,” said Tim Falinski, Vice President of the Consumer Business at Trend Micro in Australia.

“Never share sensitive or confidential data, especially if you are unsure of the recipients identity or intentions,” he said.

It’s a sentiment shared in the security world, with Tyler McGee, Head of Sales for McAfee in the Asia Pacific Region, noting that boundaries were important.

“Establish boundaries for yourself while engaging with individuals – whether you know them or not – while online,” he told Pickr. “This includes the sharing of personal images, with boundaries allowing you to say no to sharing anything you are uncomfortable with, particularly when you do not know the person you are speaking with.

“If language turns threatening, you should immediately tell someone,” he said.

“You can either report and block this person via social media platform tools, or speak with friends and family if you ever feel uncomfortable. A local police station or hotline are also options if you feel unsafe or threatened online.”

Dealing with sextortion as a parent

Sextortion attempts on an adult are one thing, but if you have kids and teens using phones, the situation becomes a whole lot more problematic. Even if you have some form of security service installed, it’s unlikely you’re going to catch this sort of scammer in action, largely because of the type of security activity it falls under.

Scamming over social media is called “social engineering”, and security services and applications are typically ill-equipped to handle it. They cater to things that can be tracked and blocked, such as dodgy files being sent that have the power to lock down files, and may even find ways to read scam emails and text messages, but they invariably don’t work in real time and won’t be able to trace a social media user’s true origin.

Security software installed for a family can’t tell you whether the person you or your kids are talking to is really from where they say they are. And that’s a problem.

You can always try reverse image searching someone much like how TV’s Catfish shows people can do, but even that isn’t a sole indication of what’s real and what isn’t.

Typically, the advice comes down to education and conversation.

Talk to your kids and teens

It’s next to impossible to always be aware of what your kids are doing on their devices, so making sure you can talk to them about what’s going on, highlighting its importance.

“Honest conversations with your children is a good place to start, explaining how their digital footprint is built and how something as simple as sharing photos privately doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll remain private,” said McGee.

“Keep the communication open and regular,” he said.

“If your kids know you are genuinely interested in all aspects of their life – both online and offline – and that you have their back, then they are far more likely to come to you if and when there is a problem.”

If you think you’re child is a victim of sextortion

Things get a little more complex if you suspect your child may be the victim of a sextortion attempt, or if they tell you that they’re being extorted over images they sent.

“If you think your child has been a victim, there are a few steps you should take immediately,” said Trend Micro’s Falinski.

“Do not respond to the demands or make any payments and instead report the incident to the appropriate authorities,” he said. “Collect as much evidence as you can, change any online account passwords immediately and seek support to help cope with any emotional impact of the incident.”

McAfee’s Tyler McGee agreed with that, noting that support of your children was critical throughout the time.

“The most important thing to do is commit to supporting your children,” he said. “Many offenders have mastered the art of manipulation and can make the victim feel like there is no way out of the situation. The shame and embarrassment are all consuming.

“Many victims feel like they have done something wrong and will be punished by parents and/or prosecuted by police if anyone finds out. Reassure them that you will help them, that they are not in trouble, and that you’ll protect them.”

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