UK police warn of sextortion attempts in intimate online dating chats

There are people out there trying to take advantage of the only way to date during a pandemic.

As politicians play whack-a-mole with COVID-19 infection rates and try to balance the economic damage caused by lockdowns, stay-at-home orders have also impacted those out there in the dating scene. 

No longer able to meet up for a drink, a coffee, or now even a walk in the park, organizing an encounter with anyone other than your household or support bubble is banned and can result in a fine in the United Kingdom -- and this includes both dates and overnight stays. 

Therefore, the only feasible option available is online connections, by way of social networks or dating apps. 

Dating is hard enough at the best of times but sexual desire doesn't disappear just because you are cooped up at home. Realizing this, a number of healthcare organizations worldwide have urged us not to contribute to the spread of COVID-19 by meeting up with others for discreet sex outside of our social bubbles, bringing new meaning to the phrase, "You are your safest sex partner."

This doesn't mean, however, that we've abandoned the search in the time of a pandemic; instead, dating apps -- such as Tinder, eHarmony, and the new Quarantine Together -- are signing up users in record numbers. 

Apps and chats over Zoom, however, can only go so far and after you've made your way through remote small talk, what's next?

If you're not careful, it's blackmail. 

In a recent case documented by the UK's Thames Valley police, a sextortion scam started innocently enough: a young man was contacted over Facebook by a woman who wanted to video chat. 

They talked twice online and the woman asked him to show off his body. While no "intimate" acts took place in the first online session, the police say, the second chat was another story -- and the intimate footage he provided was then covertly recorded by the scam artist. 

She then told her victim that their online session had been recorded and demanded £200 ($270) on pain of it being sent to all of his family and friends, now available to her through the Facebook connection. 

The man refused, but over the next two hours, he received over 100 demands for payment. Eventually, he appeared to cave in -- but instead blocked her and deactivated all of his accounts before contacting law enforcement. 

Thames Valley asks for us to "not do anything silly" online, but this case -- as it goes, a small fish in a large phishing pond and one in which the young man escaped from the net -- still highlights how careful we need to be now about sharing intimate footage or allowing the opportunity for it to be taken online without our permission. 

Sextortion is not a new concept, and unfortunately, the internet has provided a lucrative arena for people trying to extort money, sexual acts, services, or images from others. Some of the most common forms of sextortion are:

  • Phishing emails: Messages claim to have seen your web history or pornographic website visits, and may also say that 'hackers' accessed your webcam and recorded you. 
  • Phishing emails containing known passwords: The same, but with the addition of passwords used by you to access online accounts that may have been leaked in a data breach to try and appear more legitimate.
  • Revenge porn: Threats to release intimate photos or videos online, sometimes by ex-partners or other people you know. 
  • Internet of Things: Nest and Ring devices have been compromised to recycle old tactics and convince victims that hackers have illicit recordings of them. 

Emotional triggers are the key: humiliation, fear, worry of friends, family, or co-workers finding out or viewing footage, and the concern of the future impact such material could have on your life. 

A report conducted by Thorn and the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) estimates that in 45% of cases where a perpetrator has access to sensitive material, they will carry out their threat. 

After all, it's not them who face humiliation.

With this in mind, it's time to reconsider just what risks we are comfortable taking online, lockdown or not. Sextortion can be devastating but there's no guarantee that a scammer will delete footage they have obtained after you've paid up -- and may simply demand more and more from you.

"Anybody who is threatened with this type of blackmail by an online contact is advised to contact the police and should refuse to send the scammer any money," commented Ray Walsh, Digital Privacy Expert at ProPrivacy. "Once a scammer knows that a victim is willing to pay they will only double down and ask for more. For this reason, it is vital that you contact the police and refuse to pay."

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