Sextortion email scams on the rise, FBI says

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Sextortion scams on the rise, FBI says
New FBI data shows that reports of "sextortion," in which a scammer threatens to release compromising photos of their victim unless they receive payment, have more than doubled.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- New FBI data shows that reports of "sextortion," in which a scammer threatens to release compromising photos of their victim unless they receive payment, have more than doubled, costing victims $83 million in 2018 alone.

"We really do see people spending $50,000," said Siobhan Johnson, a special agent with the FBI.

Shawn Kanady, a cyber security expert, says sextortion is often done through social media or email.

"The email is going to threaten you and say, 'We have this compromising information about you, and if you don't pay us, we will then tell all your friends and family about this.'"

If you don't pay, the alleged X-rated video and pictures of you will be blasted out to your family, friends, co-workers and boss, or posted on social media.

"Sextortion is absolutely on the rise," Johnson said.

FBI data from a recent month shows an additional 13,000 complaints about the sextortion scam.

Chicago-based Trustwave is also seeing a spike.

"In our global security report, we found that sextortion type of spam emails are up 10 percent. In fact, the year prior there was zero percent," Kanady said.

Click below to read a real sextorition email provided to the I-Team by Trustwave

The hacker said he wants $1,000 or he'll release web cam video of a victim.

In 2018, overall "electronic extortion" complaints rose 242 percent with total losses of $83 million.

The FBI said you should never give money.

"If you give the money, the requests very likely will not stop," Johnson said. "So you are not doing anything that will prevent future abuse, it's just continuing the pattern of abuse. So before you send them money, contact the FBI so we can look into the situation and advise you."

The FBI added that the extortionist is often lying about having compromising material.

"Nine billion or so records that have been dumped over the years, um, and these threat actors will get a list of usernames and just send a spam. It's very automated," Kanady said. "They craft one email and it costs them zero to do that, but the fear and anxiety it causes people, whether they may be guilty of such activities or not, it puts them at alarm and they may pay."

The fake pictures are either doctored, or cyber-trolls on dating apps are truly collecting private pictures and videos, even recording you while you are on FaceTime or Skype.

"People think they have control of the situation when they're online, that they're anonymous, but they are not," Johnson warns. "It's very easy to get other people's information online. You can quickly fall prey, and what you thought was once under your control can quickly spiral out of control."

Sextortion is not always just about money. According to this criminal complaint, a 15-year-old Wisconsin girl told authorities that she met William Calderon, a 43-year-old convicted murderer from Cicero, online. The girl told authorities that Calderon threatened he would send "nude photos of her to her friends and family" if she didn't do as he demanded. The complaint alleges he also raped her on five different occasions. Calderon faces more than 70 years in prison and is fighting the charges in an upcoming jury trial.

"We are in the middle of a large campaign to get the word out on sextortion and let people know it's not their fault," Johnson said. "The sextortionist is breaking the law. You are a victim and we are here to support you."

Criminals can also "sextort" people if they obtain a phone or cloud sign-in to access photos. One way to protect yourself is to not store sensitive or embarrassing pictures online or on mobile devices. Experts warn about sending sensitive material to anyone.