Woman sitting in bed and touching her smartphone screen overlaid with lines of binary code

The future of crime is a pretty face and a webcam: the rise of ‘sextortion’

  • Cases of webcam blackmail are going up dramatically
  • Criminals prey on the psychological weaknesses we all share
  • Sextortion is internationally organised crime
  • How can you protect yourself – and what to do if you’re a victim

A beautiful woman entices a man into sexual actions, filming him in the act. Her accomplices, a dark network of professional criminals spread across the world, demand payment to keep these videos secret. This sounds like the plot of a political thriller or a Cold War espionage film, but increasingly, this kind of high-stakes entrapment is striking a lot closer to home.

Cases of webcam blackmail are going up dramatically

Men (and women) of all ages – even children – are being targeted by sextortion rings, in which online vixens lure them into nudity or webcam sex, only to turn the tables on them later. Though these crimes are often under-reported for obvious reasons, leading experts in the UK are worried about the numbers. Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt, the lead for adult sexual offences at the National Police Chiefs Council, calls this “a really worrying, emerging new threat.” Indeed, he notes that four men recently chose suicide over public shame. And Roy Sinclair, the head of operations at the National Crime Agency (NCA), wants to sound the alert. “This is still a relatively new and emerging type of crime,” he says. “However the trend is clear. Cases of webcam blackmail – or sextortion – are going up dramatically. As recently as 2012 we were only getting a handful of reports, now we’re getting hundreds.” That may be something of an understatement: the Independent puts last year’s numbers at roughly 864 victims in the UK alone.

Close-up of a brunette woman sitting in bed with a mild smile on her face
Men (and women) of all ages – even children – are being targeted by sextortion rings, in which online vixens lure them into nudity or webcam sex, only to turn the tables on them later.

Criminals prey on the psychological weaknesses we all share

Zinaida Benenson, from the Lab for IT Security Infrastructures at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, studies cyber vulnerability. Her research reveals that these sextortionists use what’s called ‘spear phishing’ to begin their crime. They study your social media accounts, learning what they can about you. And when they think they know enough to attract your attention, they use an interest of yours – a football team, a band, your favourite restaurant – as the spearhead of their phishing attempt. They post a message or a picture to your social media account, hoping to lure you to respond or click on a link. And Benenson says that while 1 in 5 people know better than to click a link from a stranger in an email, more than twice that number are caught unaware on Facebook.

Tim Watson, the director of the Cybersecurity Centre at the University of Warwick, explains that these criminals are playing on a psychological trick. “When we are publishing on social media”, he says, “we don’t see that as being public because we are at home working at a laptop. It does not feel like it is outside so the indicators we are getting are that we are in a safe space.” And it’s precisely that false sense of safety, that sense that this person shares our interests and is friendly, that makes this crime possible. This is far more organised, far more a crime of scale and information gathering than you might imagine. As he tells the Guardian, “they know what football team you support, they know what sort of food you like. They can see your pattern of life from what you have publicly made available. What that does is show them very cheaply and quickly on that scale who the likely, most productive victims are going to be. It won’t be a random email. It will be mentioning people you know. It will be mentioning things you are interested in. It will be capturing you late at night when you are tired. It is building on the confidence indicators you have given away.” That is, these aren’t random attacks or pranks, but rather elaborate, carefully planned, meticulously researched crimes.

Sextortion is internationally organised crime

Once this ring of extortionists gets you to respond, they know the hook is set. And make no mistake, these are well-organised international professionals, often from Morocco, The Ivory Coast, or the Philippines. Hewitt is clear about this: “This is organised crime. Whilst the individual cases themselves may involve relatively limited amounts of money, this is being organised by well-equipped, often offshore organised crime groups that are facilitating this activity.” These pros will have an attractive woman begin an intimate chat, perhaps inviting you to share video or pictures with her. Once something sexually explicit is recorded, the demands for money begin, accompanied by threats to send the incriminating evidence to friends, family, and everyone else in your digital life.

The NCA has published a video dramatising how this process unfolds. Take a look:

How can you protect yourself – and what to do if you’re a victim

Their advice for how to avoid this new cybercrime is simple and straightforward. First, be suspicious and reasonable. Is it likely that a quick Facebook message turns into something sexual almost immediately? Is the woman in question out of your league? These should have alarm bells ringing! But if you do something stupid, keep your wits about you. “Do not panic, do not pay, do not communicate and preserve evidence,” the NCA advises. And don’t trust that these criminals want a one-time payment; they’ll take you for everything they can get.

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