Inside this post: Sextortion is a growing problem online, and two out of three teens report being targeted by scammers. Would your teen know what to do?
This is a contributed post by John Wilson, Senior Fellow responsible for Threat Research at cybersecurity software and services provider Fortra (www.fortra.com), where he heads up the Agari Cyber Intelligence Division (ACID).
This is a tough topic, but an important one. Earlier this year, similar tragedies made headlines in California and Michigan when teenage boys with bright futures died by suicide as a result of sextortion.
These scams involved blackmail via online exchanges. In both cases, the perpetrators requested nude photos and then threatened to share the images publicly unless monetary demands were met.
Not knowing what to do, both boys took their own lives.
Scarier yet, about two out of every three teenagers are targeted by “sextortion” schemes, according to new research conducted by Snap Inc., which owns the social media app Snapchat. In total, 65% of teens on Snapchat and other apps said they or their friends were targets of sextortion in which they were either “catfished” — tricked into speaking with people lying about their identity online — or hacked for private information, including explicit photos, that were then used against them.
How Did We Get Here?
The 2020 lockdown led everyone—adults and children—to spend massive amounts of time online. With typical social interactions disrupted, teens sought new ways to connect with others on the web, leading to new risks.
These heartbreaking accounts remind us we often have no idea who we are interacting with on social media and other sites. A profile picture of a smiling, fresh-faced teenager may, in fact, be a 50-year-old male in another country looking to make a buck—with little concern he’s ripping someone’s life apart in the process.
The FBI has reported a rise in sextortion cases involving children and teens. We must all remember that until someone proves otherwise, they’re strangers and shouldn’t be trusted.
A Culture of Oversharing and Influencers
Teens see individuals and families posting intimate details of their lives for anyone who hits the subscribe button. Many kids dream about being the next big influencer and racking up millions of followers.
They want to achieve fame and acceptance as a YouTube, TikTok or Instagram sensation.
It comes down to the need to be liked. It’s natural. That’s why teens are particularly susceptible to sextortion when they think an attractive person shows interest in them or wants to be friends online.
How Scammers Connect with Teens
Social media, email, games, chat rooms, and cell phones give scammers plenty of ways to reach and extort teens once they make a connection and establish trust. I’ve heard a variety of ingenious but terrifying scenarios in my role as senior fellow, threat research at Fortra, a provider of advanced email security solutions.
It’s easier than ever for hackers to reach potential victims because everything can be spoofed, from websites and emails to phone numbers and caller IDs. Trusting teens can be duped into believing they’re interacting with someone they know, or even the most tech-savvy teen can innocently interact with someone they admire and would like to know.
Scammers are always looking to get access to personal details to pair with publicly available information and stolen credentials. The more information they can access, the better they can execute crafty social engineering campaigns and carry out fraud like sextortion.
There’s another type of sextortion that doesn’t involve the exchange of explicit photos. A scammer will send an email or direct social media message telling the child they’ve got access to their computer and webcam and have been recording them and the explicit sites they visit.
The scammer threatens to tell the victim’s family and friends if they don’t send money. In actuality, the scammer doesn’t have access and just hopes the victim is scared enough to pay up.
How to Protect Tweens and Teens from Sextortion
Parents need to have “the talk.” Not just about the birds and the bees, but also about the dangers that continue to pop up with online communication. It’s important to have ongoing conversations with their kids–including older teens who you think have a good grip on tech usage–about sextortion.
Not everything and everyone is a threat, but kids and teens need a healthy level of suspicion in their interactions with unknown people and sites. Parental controls can only do so much.
Five tips to help your teens identify and prevent sextortion
Keep the lines of communication open.
Your kids need to feel safe coming to you even if they’re in an awkward or embarrassing situation. If possible, start talking with them before they really get active online. Let them know you’ll figure out problems together–and there is nothing more important to you than their safety.
Think carefully about photos.
Reinforce that once a photo is shared, it cannot be controlled. Any image could wind up on a forum for all to see, including a Snapchat exchange captured as a screenshot.
Remove location information from photos by updating the exchangeable image file (EXIF) data. And it might sound obvious, but ensure your kids know never to send nude photos. It could even be a felony if they’re underage.
Think before you post.
Remind your teens that what’s shared on the internet is permanent. That unseemly party pic they get tagged in at age 17 could cost them a job five years later when a prospective employer does social media due diligence.
Don’t respond directly to inbound requests.
The rule is if it’s inbound and unexpected, don’t give out any information. Hang up and verify contact information via a secondary channel before responding.
For email, click on the sender’s name in the email header to view the actual domain. Many times, the sender isn’t who you think it is.
And never click on a link from an unknown email or enter a password.
Practice what you preach.
Parents also need to be careful of how much information they post online about their families. Sharing the location of soccer practice and friends’ names is valuable intel for scammers to use in befriending kids with accurate details that build trust.
Also, review your social media account privacy settings and lock down access to your profile and posts so only trusted contacts can see them.
Helpful resources if your teen falls victim to sextortion
The FBI stresses the importance of not deleting exchanges with predators and reporting crimes quickly. Below are sources for help if your teen is a sextortion target.
- Local FBI Field Office: https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices
- The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program: https://www.icactaskforce.org/
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
John Wilson is a Senior Fellow responsible for Threat Research at cybersecurity software and services provider Fortra (www.fortra.com), where he heads up the Agari Cyber Intelligence Division (ACID). John researches business email compromise scams and conducts “active defense” engagements with threat actors. His team has identified and reported more than 6,600 bank accounts used by fraudsters to launder money and has referred several cases to law enforcement for further investigation. He assisted Microsoft and the FS-ISAC with the B54 Citadel botnet takedown in 2012.