Sextortion is a lesser-known type of online harassment which involves perpetrators threatening to use personal intimate images or footage to force the victim into complying with their demands.
New data from Avast, which runs a range of antivirus apps used by Microsoft, Android and others, shows the platform blocked 66,063 sextortion attacks in the UK between mid-December and mid-February.
The platform, which gave their data to The Independent exclusively, said the incidents refer to emails sent by scammers falsely pretending to have explicit images of the victim.
Cybercriminals are said to be monopolising on increasing amounts of time people are spending using Zoom and other video apps in the wake of the pandemic to pretend they have managed to access a victim’s device and camera.
They erroneously claim they exploited Zoom’s defects - that do not actually exist - to enable them to access the user’s device and camera and have covertly recorded them.
According to Avast, the email also refers to a “recorded sexual act”, which would trigger a “terrible reputation damage” if it was leaked as the scammer urges the victim coughs up $2,000 in Bitcoin.
Marek Beno, a malware analyst at Avast, told The Independent: ’’Sextortion messages, much like spam emails, are highly automated, and going to tens of thousands of people at the same time.
“We have seen much news of data breaches in the past months and years, and people often wonder what happens if they are affected by a data breach.
“Sextortion emails can be one of the consequences - your email will be sold on the dark web, and this way you can become a target of spammers, and scammers like this, sending you sextortion emails.’’
He noted scammers perceive greater opportunity to succeed in extorting money out of victims as people are spending a great deal more time on Zoom and by their computer in the wake of the coronavirus emergency.
Mr Beno added: “Sextortion scams are dangerous and unsettling, and can even have tragic consequences resulting in the suicide of affected users.
“As scary as such emails may sound, we urge people to stay calm if they receive such a message in their inbox and ignore it, as it is just a dirty trick that cybercriminals use to try to get your money.”
Dmitrii Vekshin, another malware analyst who works there, noted the emails will make the recipient feel “fear and shame” as well as making them panic - adding that the message will say they need to pay immediately.
David Jones, who works for the National Crime Agency’s anti-kidnap and extortion unit, told The Independent: “During the past 12 months we have seen increased reporting of sextortion by members of the public to UK police forces.
“Our assessment suggests this is due to increased confidence in the police to deal with allegations of cyber-enabled extortion (sextortion) in a sensitive and confidential manner.”
He said they had worked with police forces to make reporting procedures better as he urged victims to neither “panic” or pay anything and have no more communication with the scammer.
Last spring, The Independent reported on sextortion during the Covid lockdown after Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting service for fraud and financially-motivated cybercrime, revealed it had received 9,473 reports of a sextortion fraudulent phishing racket in April alone with 200 reports made in the last week.
Phishing refers to sending out emails that falsely claim to come from established firms in a bid to trick people into mistakenly divulging private information like passwords or credit card details.
“Sextortion scams are a type of phishing attack where people are coerced to pay a ransom, normally in Bitcoin. The messages can look particularly convincing because they often include the recipient’s genuine password,” Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud, said at the time.
“The criminals sending these emails are ruthless, unscrupulous individuals who don’t care about the impact of their actions on victims. They seek to exploit people’s emotions – shaming and scaring the recipient enough, that they make a payment.”