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BBB scam alert: Beware of ‘sextortion’ emails

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is again warning the public about sextortion emails from scammers trying to blackmail recipients into giving them money. Sextortion emails typically include threats to reveal images and videos of the victim watching or utilizing pornography, copies of their browser history or evidence that they downloaded videos from pornographic sites.

Better Business Bureaus nationwide received 32 reports of this scam in April 2020.

The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center also recently reported an uptick in online extortion scams during the stay-at-home orders issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic. With more people staying at home and likely using their phone, computer or tablet, con artists are using this opportunity to their advantage in hopes of getting money from you.

How the scam works:

The scammers will contact anyone – whether or not they’ve actually visited pornographic sites. They’ll claim to have hacked your computer, activated your webcam, and videoed you while you watched pornography. They’ll tell you they have been able to access all the pornographic websites you have visited and threaten to send embarrassing images, videos and screenshots to stolen contacts, family, friends and co-workers if a payment is not made.

Generally speaking, the threat is likely an empty one, because the blackmail message usually doesn’t have enough personal information to make their scheme plausible. However, there are some cases where the victims are specifically targeted because their data was compromised in a major security breach some time ago. In those situations, the scammer may have your email, telephone number and at least one password, and will refer to it in the email. By using real information, the scammer’s email sounds more threatening and convincing.

Recent submissions to BBB Scam Tracker state that the criminals want to be paid in bitcoin, a virtual currency that is very difficult to trace.

One consumer in Memphis, TN recently reported to BBB that she’d received a total of five emails over the past week demanding $2,000 in bitcoins. “They used one of my passwords in the subject line and threatened to send videos to all my contacts of me in a compromised activity. The also accused me of visiting porn sites. I am almost 72 and I assure you the video is fake and I have never gone to a porn site,” she told BBB. She did not pay any money.

Another consumer reported a similar scenario. He received an email that contained a password he uses in the subject line. “The claim was that this person had video of me looking at porn and he would send it to all of my contacts if I did not pay within a set time $2,000 in bitcoin. He claimed that if I contacted anyone or if I ignored it, the video would go out to all of my contacts,” he told BBB. He did not pay any money.

Other victims have reported paying the requested amount for their peace of mind.

Hackers are getting bolder and smarter and because of this, everyone is at risk of getting a sextortion email. Unfortunately, threatening the release of embarrassing footage that could negatively impact one’s personal and professional reputation, can trigger the need for self preservation, even if it comes at a cost of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Scammers will happily play on a person’s emotions to trick them out of their money, and this is why it is important that you assess the situation and not just give your money away in a panic.

BBB is sharing the following tips to help you identify and protect yourself from sextortion emails.

Red flags:

  • The scammer does not provide any details about what site you supposedly visited.
  • The scammer cannot support their threat with any evidence, for example, a compromising screenshot to prove they have the information they claim.
  • The scammer requests an urgent ransom be paid in gift cards, bitcoins or wire transfer.
  • Other red flags include grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and a window of time in which to pay up.

Protect Yourself:

  • Never send compromising images of yourself to anyone, no matter who they are—or who they say they are.
  • Try searching the web for one or two sentences from the email to confirm it is actually spam.
  • No matter what the email threatens, do not respond. Also delete the email.
  • Do not open attachments or click links in emails from people you do not know. Doing so could lead you to a fake website designed to trick you into giving up personal information or you may download malware to your computer or mobile device.
  • Never send money, buy a gift card or do anything to comply with the demands in the email.
  • Do a security check on your computer and install security software.
  • Enable two-factor authentication on your important accounts.
  • Change passwords often and consider getting a password manager to ensure your passwords are strong and unique. Avoid using ‘password’, ‘Password123’, ‘12345’, and other most commonly used passwords. Click See more password tips.
  • To give you peace of mind, keep webcams covered when you are not using them.
  • Check to see if your email was compromisedin a security breach.

All victims of a scam should report it on BBB Scam Tracker and to the FBI Internet Complaint Center.

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Jay Edwards

Born and raised in Northwest NJ, Jay has a degree in Communications and has had a life-long interest in local radio and various styles of music. Jay has held numerous jobs over the years such as stunt car driver, bartender, voice-over artist, traffic reporter (award winning), NY Yankee maintenance crewmember and peanut farm worker. His hobbies include mountain climbing, snowmobiling, cooking, performing stand-up comedy and he is an avid squirrel watcher. Jay has been a guest on America’s Morning Headquarters,program on The Weather Channel, and was interviewed by Sam Champion.

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