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The Rising Threat of ‘Sextortion & Revenge Porn’ Against Everyday Families

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Sextortion and revenge porn attacks are some of the worst types of attack that parents find themselves dealing with. These types of attack are where criminals coerce victims into sending them images or video of them naked or performing sex acts, and then extort or blackmail them for their own financial or emotional gain.

Once the attacker gets their hands on such private media they post it online to either humiliate the victim (revenge porn) or extort people out of large sums of money (blackmail). In some cases (e.g. sexual predators) they may extort the victim out of more explicit material (sextortion). A high percentage of victims of this type of cybercrime have been driven to drug and alcohol addiction, self-harming and even suicide.

These types of attack are harrowing and escalating in both occurrence and ferociousness. The National Crime Agency had 1,245 cases of webcam blackmail reported to their Anti-Kidnap and Extortion Unit in 2016, more than 300% than the previous year. What’s more, experts believe this to be one of the most under-reported crimes in the UK and really these stats are only the tip of the iceberg.

Why is it growing so fast?

These attacks can be run like a business and can make attackers thousands of pounds per week! It’s also a tricky area to police. Adults and teenagers alike enjoy sexting, using webcams and aren’t going to just stop because someone tells them to! The good news is that we don’t need to stop doing these things. We just need a pragmatic way of sharing this kind of sensitive material that doesn’t put us at risk. Before we get into the fixes, let’s look at what the three kinds of attack are;

1. Impersonation Sextortion
2. Hacked Sextortion
3. Revenge Porn

In this post, I’ll explain what each of these attacks are and what we we can do to protect ourselves and our kids from them.

  1. Impersonation Sextortion

The victim believes they are communicating with a genuine, non-malicious person. Teenagers are targeted due to the combination of their sexual activity during their formative years and their vulnerability to manipulation. They are convinced to send naked images/video or perform sex acts over webcam (which they send willingly because they think they are interacting with a fellow teenager) but then are blackmailed for large sums of money.

In April 2017, a gang of 20 cyber criminals was uncovered in France. They were blackmailing 30 teenagers PER DAY and four of these victims killed themselves after being tricked into performing sex acts online. Often these gangs are foreign, based in Africa and Asia, so are difficult to police and bring to justice. The criminals create fake dating websites and social media profiles posing as attractive young girls and boys with the sole intent on building trust and eventually convincing them to share nude media or do something explicit on webcam (which is secretly being recorded by the criminals using basic screen capture software). Once the acts have been recorded these are played back to the victims and they are blackmailed. They usually threaten to send the media directly to their parents, friends, siblings, spouses via social media. In a sick twist, the attackers even threaten to broadcast the fact they have caught them watching child porn to further try and publicly humiliate them. Payments are demanded usually in the range between £500 - £1000…

One harrowing case was uncovered earlier this year, where a young boy was targeted by an Ivory Coast gang and was blackmailed after being online for only 100 minutes. This just demonstrates the speed at which these kinds of attacks can occur. After he discovered they had been posing as an attractive girl on a dating site and were now were blackmailing him, he said: “I’d rather go and shoot myself, you f***ing trash making people do this.” The attacker replied: “I thank you I want your money more I will share your video bye?”

After no response from the victim, the criminal posted his video onto social media. Minutes after, the victim posted his suicide note to social media: “I was getting blackmailed by someone for £800 so they sent a video around of me and ruined my life. […] I am so sorry … but this is the only way out.” He was later found dead by police.

Case Study: Amanda Todd

The most famous case of sextortion to date is that of Amanda Todd when she was only 15 years old. Like many teenagers do at some point nowadays, Amanda revealed her breasts on a video chat website to someone she trusted. She then got a Facebook message one year later from an anonymous man. He said if she didn’t show more parts of her body then he would post the pictures he had taken of her from before on to the Internet. She didn’t relent but then the police arrived at 4am at her home to tell her that photos of her were sent to ‘everyone’.

Amanda developed depression, panic disorder and got addicted to drugs and alcohol. She moved schools three times. The whole experience traumatised her for two years and ultimately led to her suicide. She posted a final video to YouTube before she took her own life, telling her story. If you have 5mins, check it out, not only is it very touching, it perfectly summarises the devasting impact being sextorted can have on a young child’s life – the gravitas of which is something I feel all parents should be actively aware of.

2. Hacked Sextortion

The second type of sextortion is even more sly and involves the cyber criminals remotely hacking our webcam and secretly recording us. Most laptops and computers have integrated web cams and can fairly easily be hacked by an attacker.

Criminals use malware (usually delivered via phishing emails) to compromise our device. The malware silently drops something called a ‘RAT’ (Remote Access Tool) onto your machine and allows the remote control of your webcam , often without even turning that green webcam light on! RATs are small pieces of software and were originally designed for legitimate purposes, such as an IT department technician connecting to employees’ PCs to help them troubleshoot problems. However, as they can give almost as much access as being physically there, criminals have adopted them for these kinds of nefarious purposes. The most notorious example to date is the Blackshades malware which was so well distributed worldwide, any member of the public could purchase it for around $40.

Attackers will record you getting undressed, having sex or masturbating. They then use this recorded video to blackmail you in a similar way as what we’ve already seen via Impersonated Sextortion. Even if you’re not caught in a sexually compromising way, there have been cases where hackers have identified people doing unsavoury things such as beating their pets/partner or having affairs and still used this as the blackmail material instead.

Most worryingly, is the fact it is not just criminal hackers using this method of attack to infiltrate our private lives. Some schools have been caught in the act too…in 2010 Pennsylvania High School IT Admins took more than 30,000 images of students via their school laptop webcams using remote access tools. Students in other schools have also reported seeing the webcam light turn on without any action on their part…

Much like cyberbullying, there is a proven link between cases of sextortion and child suicide. In a report by the US Justice Department , they found that “a 2015 FBI analysis of 43 sextortion cases involving child victims revealed […] 28 percent of these cases had at least one sextortion victim who committed or attempted suicide.”

So, how do we prevent ourselves being a victim? We can quite simply tape a small piece of paper over our webcams as an attacker cannot physically remove it! Alternatively, if you don’t like the look of a bit of tape over your expensive laptop or don’t want to peel it off every time you want to use it, as discussed in the Device Security chapter on Physical Protection, you can buy (quite cheaply for about £10) webcam covers to fit your specific brand and model of computer. Webcam covers should be considered our last line of defence and you should look to secure your PC first and foremost. The good news is that to do this, you don’t need to do anything more than follow the malware protection guidelines already provided in the ‘Malware’ chapter.

If you have a windows computer, I would advise you perform one additional step. For reasons I won’t bore you with the in-built RAT feature of windows machines is inherently vulnerable. As such, I would disable it altogether as most people never need it and if you ever do need it, you can enable it again quite easily. How to disable it will depend on your current operating system version but it’s real simple. For example, for Windows 7 users, just go to Computer and right click on Properties > Remote Settings > deselect Allow Remote Assistance connections to this computer and select Don’t allow connections to this computer. Click Ok. Done!

We’ve covered the two methods by which people we don’t know can sextort us – impersonation and hacking our devices. There is unfortunately a third way that this kind of personal media can be used to blackmail us and that is by people we know and trust, something called revenge porn.

3. Revenge Porn

The difference between revenge porn and sextortion is that revenge porn is typically performed by people we already know. It is the non-consensual posting of pornography and can often be accompanied by threats or blackmail. There are a couple of scenarios that typically occur;

  • Retribution & Humiliation: if you break-up with somebody on bad terms people out of spite post sexual footage on social media in an attempt to humiliate the victim. Unfortunately, there are even dedicated ‘revenge porn’ websites where people can post images and video of victims. Having these sensitive images posted to social media sites even for short periods (e.g. before the website can take them down) can be devastating if members of your friend groups, family, teachers, religious leaders and neighbours are sent links to it.
  • Trophy Syndrome: some people feel compelled to show and hoard pornographic texts, photos or videos with their friends. A survey by Childnet International found more than half of UK teenagers have seen their friends share intimate images of someone they know with some having witnessed peers setting up dedicated groups on social media (e.g. WhatsApp or Facebook) specifically to share sexual images.

A young YouTube musician called Chrissy Chambers was recently the victim of a revenge porn attack by her ex-partner. A sexual video was posted on a YouTube channel of Chrissy with her current partner. It caused her to develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), she became an alcoholic at 23, developed depression, anxiety, night terrors and it affected her relationship with her partner. The attack almost killed her. She spent four-and-a-half years fighting to get the rights to get the videos taken down and has recently been successful.

There’s no realistic way to prevent others sharing this information once released, except taking out an expensive legal injunction against those holding it. Some mobile apps try and make it difficult to share this kind of information, e.g. photos that expire after a few seconds but people can usually fairly easily circumvent these (e.g. by taking a photo of the screen using another camera phone). We might not be able to prevent the sharing of the information but we can control the media itself. This brings us nicely on to the solutions below that will help protect us from all three of these sextortion and revenge porn attacks.

What Can We Do To Protect Our Family?

1. Education

Make sure your kids are aware of what sextortion attacks are and that they now occur on a commercial scale by well-funded organised crime gangs from abroad (e.g. Asia and Africa). This is important to both prevent them becoming a victim but also to prevent them getting in hot water when they’re sending and receiving naughty snaps of them and their girlfriend/boyfriend.

Why is this important? The law can be very inflexible around these types of offences and your kid can be (and there have been cases where this has happened in the UK) put on a sex register just for sending a few naughty pics of themselves to their current boyfriend / girlfriend. This is because in many countries, it is illegal to distribute pornographic images of a child. If a child sends a naked image of themselves to someone else, this is still defined as distributing pornographic images of a child (albeit themselves) and thus they can end up with a criminal record and on the sex offenders register for life! Crazy I know but this is why you should consider very carefully to include the school in any reports of sextortion as some schools have a mandatory reporting requirement to law enforcement.

2. Video / Photo Sharing

Some poor advice I’ve seen is “Do not share any sexually explicit information or nude photos with anyone”. This ignores the fact that teenagers are going to continue to do this whatever advice parents give them. We all know telling a teenager not to do something is fuel for the fire! Therefore, a more pragmatic approach is required. My advice is this - if you are going to do sexting, ensure you stick to the following rules;

  • Reserve the sharing of this kind of private media with only those you explicitly trust, e.g. long-term partners, fiancées and husbands/wives.
  • Teenagers won’t have these kinds of long-term trusted relationships so they will by definition be sharing this kind of personal media with people they cannot wholly trust. As such, we need other ways to protect ourselves that don’t prohibit us but allow us to do so in a safe manner. The following four golden rules of sharing naughty media will enable us to do this.

o Rule 1: Validate Their Identity Before Sharing Anything. Validate the identity of the recipient to ensure they are not actually a sexual predator or criminal gang. Firstly, ask to skype with them in a non-sexual capacity using both video and audio enabled to confirm they are indeed who they say they are. Ensure you have a conversation to test that it is not simply a pre-recorded video link they are using. If having a webcam session is not possible or rejected by them it’s not an immediate red flag but it should make you weary. They might be hiding something or they may just feel a little awkward with video calling someone they’ve never met before. The fall-back is to ask for a photo of them holding a piece of paper or something written on their body (arm / leg) with a made-up word or code (e.g. Cloud765) of your choosing. The photo must show their face and the code together in the same shot. These kinds of images are fairly difficult to convincingly fake, without advanced photo shopping software and expert skills which your average criminal gang and sexual predator won’t have. This method demonstrates that it is simply not a stock image from the internet and that they are who they say they are, i.e. young girl or boy. Remember, this does not validate their intentions. Just because the person you’re liaising with is a teenager like you are, it doesn’t 100% confirm they’re not a criminal or a sexual predator. Therefore, we need to do more…

o Rule 2: Your face is the main point of identification. Unfortunately, there is no way of preventing someone from recording you from their computer. So, when sending sensitive media to others we must control what is in our realm of influence – i.e. the contents of the photos / videos we’re sharing. So, never include your face in the photos or video. For video, tilt the camera so your face isn’t captured. For photo, ensure you do not just crop or blur your face out because this can be easily reverse-engineered using specialist software – ensure you take the photo without your face in it at all.

o Rule 3: Check your accessories and background. Ensure there is nothing personally identifiable on your body (rings, earrings, tattoo’s, etc.) or in the background (family photos, posters, documents, etc.). We want to make sure anything we are sending, could not be attributable back to us if it were leaked online. For example, leaving a work or school uniform hanging in the background would very quickly help them identify where you work/ go to school. The photos and video are completely useless as blackmail material unless they can be used to identify us.

o Rule 4: Turn Off Photo & Video Metadata. Hidden information is attached to many photos and videos automatically by smart phones and can be used to identify us (e.g. GPS co-ordinates of where it was taken or the IP address it was uploaded from). Ensure this feature is turned off for the devices you you’re your pics from.

If you’ve had your intimate images posted online without your consent or been a victim of sextortion, go straight to the SOS Centre of www.simplecyberlife.com where you’ll find some useful resources, actions you can take and organisations who can help you.

I hope some of you found this useful and that you now feel better equipped to protect your kids (and yourselves) from this kind of cyber attack.

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