Extortion and blackmail are some of the oldest types of crimes. And they lend themselves well to the relative anonymity of the internet.
According to its legal definition, extortion represents the threat or use of force against someone with the goal of compelling the victim to do something the criminal wants.
The most common form of extortion is robbery. Holding someone at gunpoint and threatening deadly violence unless the victim hands over money or other valuables is a textbook case of extortion.
Online extortionists may encrypt your files or “lock” your computer and demand payment to restore your access.
Blackmail itself is a type of extortion since it also involves coercion. Criminals may threaten victims with the use of force. More frequently, they may threaten to reveal real or false information that may harm the victim.
Online blackmailers may claim to have hacked into your computer and obtained incriminating images of you or other information they will use against you unless you pay them.
Online extortion scams allow criminals to cast a wide net, targeting many individuals. Typically, online extortionists send out bulk emails threatening people that they will reveal sensitive and potentially embarrassing information about them unless they pay.
Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have given criminals a new way to cash in on victims. They are peer-to-peer, unstoppable by a third party, and transactions are irreversible. After the victim pays the scammers, the funds are lost forever unless the victim decides to call in a professional tracing and recovery specialist.
Extortionists may include a password in their communication as proof that they have, indeed, obtained access to the victim’s personal information, emails, etc.
Online criminals often gain access to old passwords and information other hackers may dump on the dark web. Some of the login credentials on these old accounts remain valid. Extortionists use such lists to narrow the scope and improve the efficiency of their bulk email efforts.
If they do have passwords or other information they deem useful for their scam, criminals like to use it in the header or subject line of the email to grab the victim’s attention.
Online Extortion and Blackmail Scam Types
Everyone who has had an email for more than a couple of years has probably received extortion emails. Perpetrators run massive campaigns, and if you have ever exposed your email address on a forum or website, you are probably on their mailing lists.
- Many extortion emails start by displaying a password the criminals have acquired from a social media account. If the password is valid and current, it can have a powerful psychological impact on the recipient.
- Online extortionists may claim that they have compromising videos of the victim. They may say that they gained access to the victim’s webcam. And, through it, they have obtained footage of the victim engaging in compromising activities.
- Instead of passwords, extortionists may attempt a more sophisticated approach when they don’t have such information on their victims. They may disguise an email, making it look like the victim sent it to him/herself. They claim that they sent the email from the same address after they gained access to it.
What to do if You Receive an Extortion Email?
Extortion emails are relatively common. Do not panic if you get one.
Even if the perpetrator has your password or tries to act like he gained access to your email. Scammers don’t have videos of you. And they can’t hurt you past hijacking your social media account or email.
If you recognize the password they send you, change it as quickly as possible. If you don’t, just ignore the email.
Never use a single password for multiple accounts. If hackers steal one of your passwords, they can access every account for which you used it. Try to use a unique password for every account.
You can report the message to the authorities. You may not spark immediate action with your report. But if you send the police the entire message you got, you may contribute to the data that may eventually allow law enforcement to apprehend the criminals.
Never pay blackmailers and extortionists. If you do, you only invite them to ask for more money. When you pay, you reveal yourself as a potential goldmine for these criminals, and they will show you no mercy.
If the scammer uses a video of you on a social media site, flag it as inappropriate and report it to the site. Set a search alert at Google for your name. This way, if scammers re-upload the video, you’ll be able to find it immediately and report it again.
Block the scammers on your social media account. Deactivate your account for a couple of weeks to make them believe you have deleted it for good.
Do not reply to extortion emails. By replying, you let the scammers know that you received their message and are a ripe target for their efforts. If you reply, the scammers will escalate the interaction.
Do not give in to fear. Online blackmailers and extortionists operate by instilling fear in their victims. Like greed, fear may cloud judgment and cause you to do things you will regret later.
The Consequences of Online Blackmail and Extortion
Scammers target people indiscriminately with their extortion schemes. Some may be wise to their antics. Others may not.
There have been instances of people committing suicide or having their lives destroyed as a result of online blackmail scams.
Scammers may try to obtain the information they can use for blackmail purposes proactively. How does that work?
Scammers contact people pretending to be romantically interested in them. They may use fake photos and even videos of Instagram models or regular people off social media to pose as attractive strangers. Once they have victims hooked, they get them to send them nude pictures of themselves. They can then turn around and use the pictures they obtained to blackmail the victims.
Extortion emails are common. Remain calm if you receive one. In most cases, it should be safe to delete the emails without reading them. Never reply to scammers and never pay them in cryptocurrencies or otherwise.
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