The online extortion scam is a modern version of the classic blackmail scheme. The perpetrator either obtains or claims to have something damaging about you. They threaten to use that item or piece of information in a way that will harm you if you do not give them what they want.
Online blackmail is old news, but today’s version has taken on a frightening twist. In the older version, the scammer contacts you claiming to already have something damaging. They may insist they have hacked into your computer, or that a link you recently clicked on gave them access to your files. Those are easily dealt with by letting the site administrator of the website where the message was received know what is going on, and deleting and blocking the scammer accounts without replying. But in the newer twist, the scammer first gains the victim’s trust, and manipulates them into providing materials that are then used in the blackmail scheme. This is often referred to as “sextortion,” (sex, texting, and extortion), because the material the victim is either persuaded to send, or blackmailed into sending, is often sexual or revealing in nature. In an especially chilling twist, the FBI has recently reported a spike in these crimes aimed at teens and children.
Here are some warning signs:
Classic “catfishing” signs
The MTV show “Catfish” has some flaws. Host Nev Schulman often gives dangerous advice, suggesting scam victims befriend their scammers, behaving as though being scammed is something that can be brushed off, and giving the impression that romance scammers are just losers who deserve a second chance. In reality, romance scammers are often dangerous people, and being the victim of a romance scam can cause serious psychological and financial damage. But Schulman does deserve credit for publicizing the fact that people often pretend to be someone they are not on the internet, and the warning signs that this may be happening.
Never trust someone who resists meeting offline and in public in a situation where meeting would be the logical next step. There is no good reason why two adults in an online dating relationship but residing in the same town would not be able to meet for coffee, two adults discussing a job should not be able to connect for an interview before the job is accepted, or the parents of children who are chatting online would not be able to talk, or even meet up in public.
Look out for differences in the life the person presents and the one they appear to lead. Parents of babies do not have unlimited time to be on the computer. Nobody is tall one day and short the next. All who “catfish” are not planning extortion, but if you are seeing these signs, there is a good chance you’re talking to a person who is not online for the reason they claim, and their real reason may be extortion.
Pressure to move to another online space
Everyone has online spaces where they are more or less comfortable. Some people don’t care for chatting via facebook messenger, and would rather keep in touch with friends using old-fashioned email, or vice-versa. But when your friend of thirty years says, “Hey, let’s go on Facebook, so we can chat in real time instead of waiting for email,” it’s a very different situation than when someone you only met a few minutes, hours, or days ago wants to leave the platform.
Scammers…especially extortion scammers….want to leave the platform where they first met you because they want to get you in an environment where it is more comfortable for them to carry out their scheme. They may want to go someplace where it is easier to send and receive pictures, have longer chats, or learn your email address, location, or phone number.
Uncomfortable or inappropriately intimate conversation
Extortion scammers are fishing for information or material they can use for blackmail. One way to get this information or material is to get into an intimate conversation with their victim. And a scammer is going to want to get this information as fast as they can. They will often initiate, and pressure their victim into, providing personal information or materials.
Engaging in “sexting,” the exchange of sexual dialogue, messages, or photos as an online sexual encounter, is of course the most obvious. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because you are happily monogamous with the love of your life, fully aware of the potential dangers of sexting, and/or someone who finds the whole idea of this behavior distasteful and would never do this. It is far from the only kind of private or intimate information that can be shared or obtained online.
Scammers who realize you are not going to “sext” with them can obtain other types of private information. They may pose as a platonic friend available for venting, a professional “mentor” who gets you to open up about your work history and finances, or someone going through the same health issues as you or a family member, persuading you to share private medical or mental health information.
Overly friendly and attentive behavior
A common warning sign among all types of scams, this one is met with the most resistance. It sounds like nobody can even be friendly and compassionate toward someone else on the internet without everybody accusing them of being a scammer.
Compassionate, friendly behavior is not a red flag itself. Friendly behavior becomes a warning sign when it is behavior that would read as overly friendly in any situation. Look out for the person who wants you to think they would do anything for you, even though they just met you, responds with a flood of compliments to anything and everything you say, or has all the time in the world to “mentor” or coach you.
Promises of rewards or benefits
In case you are still tempted to sit back and say, “MY child would never share anything private. They aren’t even interested in that part of life yet.” or “I’m happily married and would never betray my spouse in any way,” or “I do not go on the internet and share any of my personal life, intimate or not, with strangers,” know that the scammers already thought people like you would be out there, and planned for it.
Your child may be approached by someone pretending to be casting for a modeling or acting job, and told that they must send photos of themselves or information about their appearance for their “portfolio.” Or they might be made to believe they will win a prize for participating in “a silly dare” or “social media challenge” by someone pretending to be their own age.
Adult targets will see right through these, but far too many adults are willing to engage in online conversations with strangers about jobs and investment opportunities. And some of these strangers may be fishing for your banking information, your unfiltered opinion of your boss, or other information you would not want to get out.
Should these red flags begin to pile up, do not engage with the person any further. Block them from contacting you. Any explicit conversation with a child or teen under the age of consent, or credible threats containing information that could lead the person to a victim of any age should be reported to law enforcement.
While we spend more and more time socializing, networking, and working online, let’s not forget to look out for ourselves and each other.
by Jess Szabo originally published on Artist Cafe Utica www.artistcafeutica.com