The FBI is warning of a particular aspect of sextortion scams: Supposed organisations that offer “help” to remove stolen images, often at a significant financial cost (and no guarantee of success).
Sextortion, the act of blackmailing individuals for cash in return for not leaking sensitive imagery and videos, has been a problem for many years. Sometimes it’s done by criminals, other times it’s by people known to the target. The imagery may be stolen from online cloud storage, leaked from a server, or obtained by compromising a PC with malware. The end result is the same: blackmail, and the threat of sending the images to friends and family, or just dumping them online.
A sub-industry of sorts has grown up around the sextortion marketplace. Companies which can supposedly help you remove sextortion content or shut down blackmailers, offer to help those in need of assistance. These organisations may be contacted by the victims directly (for example, via adverts or search engine results) or they may make contact by another method.
The FBI believes at least some of these entities may be involved in sextortion attacks themselves. However you stack it up, these supposed businesses have no real way to get material taken offline and kept offline. Unless the people holding on to the stolen content are somehow chased offline forever, there’s nothing stopping them from putting it back or reconnecting with their target.
The whack-a-mole technique, and how “help” can make things worse
This is somewhat similar to those mugshot sites, which scrape mugshots and place them online along with the details of the person in the photograph. They offer to take them down, for a price, but more often than not once the victim pays up the images reappear on a related site and they’re back to square one.
As the FBI notes, law enforcement assistance is free (and there’s slightly more chance of the people responsible getting into trouble for their actions). Here’s some examples provided by the FBI with regard to what bogus assistance looks like in practice, and how the “assistance” can make things worse:
- A company solicited multiple payments totaling $5,000 from a juvenile sextortion victim after coercing the victim with threats of reputational harm, falsely indicating the victim would be unable to go to college or get a job and the victim’s parents would lose their jobs. The victim contacted the company for help after being sextorted via social media.
- A juvenile sextortion victim contacted and hired a company for $2,000. When the victim declined to pay for additional services, the company told the victim the sextortion perpetrator asked for $5,000. At that point, the victim paid for the additional services, for which the company charged him an additional $3,200.
- A company representative contacted the mother of a juvenile sextortion victim and offered to locate the sextortionist in exchange for $1,500. The representative also discouraged the victim’s mother from seeking assistance from law enforcement. It was not clear how the company representative knew about the sextortion or how they obtained the contact information for the victim’s mother.
Here at Malwarebytes, we’ve seen numerous examples of sextortion help advertised online which may (or more likely, may not) be of use to the person being targeted. Back in 2019 we spotted an ad making some bold claims about “keeping explicit images off the internet”. Sure, it might be legitimate, or it could just as easily be designed to suck someone in still further from a problem they can no longer escape. There’s never any real way to know for sure, and this is a primary reason why your first port of call should be law enforcement.
How to spot a sextortion assistance scam
The FBI has some recommendations when dealing with sextortion scams where anything assistance related is concerned. Supposed business entities may lean into your sense of fear, shame, and desperation to get the problem “solved”. In other words, they’ll act in a manner very similar to those performing the extortion in the first place. Signs to watch out for:
- A company representative contacts you and offers assistance services for which the company charges fees;
- The company advertises sextortion assistance in exchange for fees;
- You are asked to pay the fees before the assistance services are rendered;
- The company requires you to sign a contract for their services;
- The company representative discourages you from contacting law enforcement or tells you contacting law enforcement is not the best way to get help;
- The company uses high-pressure or scare tactics in an effort to secure your business; or
- The for-profit company claims to be connected to government or law enforcement officials.
Malwarebytes tips for dealing with sextortion
We have many tips for all aspects of romance and sextortion attempts, and here’s some of the main things you can do to help yourself avoid sextortion fraud:
- Don’t panic. If a scammer tells you they have compromising images of you and they show you no evidence of the images, they probably don’t have any. Offering “proof” such as a password or phone number of yours just means they’ve got that data from a breach, and doesn’t mean they have access to your computer or webcam.
- Don’t engage: report. If you’re shown evidence of stolen images, report to your local authorities and the FBI as soon as you can. Never engage with the sextortionist.
- Be cautious about what you say to someone online. When asked certain questions, be vague and never give specifics. Remember that online, people can pretend to be someone they’re not, and can even look and sound like a different person with today’s technology.
- Personalize your security and privacy settings. Lock down your accounts as much as you can, and keep as much hidden from public view as possible.
- Data is typically forever. Remember that once you send something to someone—whether they’re a stranger, a romantic partner, relative, or friend—you have no control over where it goes next.
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