You might have had such an email in your spam folder: blackmailers claim that you possess compromising photos or videos of yourself. These files are supposed to show you watching porn and performing sexual acts. Often, the cybercriminals claim that the corresponding pictures and movies came from hacked webcams or smartphone cameras.
The blackmailers usually demand bitcoin
In similar cases, the blackmailers threaten that they have found data of pornographic content on the email recipient’s computer. The blackmailers usually demand money from unsuspecting American and English citizens – often payable in Bitcoin. Otherwise, they threaten to publish the content. These are supposed to either appear on social networks or go directly to contacts from your mail program.
Threats – and apparent evidence
Some of the extortionist emails contain more than mere threats and demands. To increase the credibility of the claims and put people under pressure, the cybercriminals also attach apparent evidence. This mainly involves personal data of the email recipient. These include, for example:
- Bank details
- Date of birth
- Cell phone number
Do the blackmailers know my password?
The more sensitive the data, the more credible the hack. If the blackmailers know secret passwords, a computer hack must have taken place, right? Sometimes an extortion even seems to originate from the recipient’s e-mail account. Isn’t that evidence that this password is also known to the criminals?
No access to the computer
In almost all such extortion attempts, no actual photos or videos exist. Also, the extortionists usually do not have access to the victim’s computer. Instead, cybercriminals often randomly send a large number of extortionist mails to random e-mail addresses. Here, the success rate is admittedly low. But the sheer volume ensures that the extortion is financially worthwhile. E-mails containing the victim’s personal data involve more effort. The relevant information often comes from address databases or other hacks. Thus, there are still too many companies that inadequately secure data.
Sensitive personal data from hacks
When hackers tap into this data, they often include sensitive personal data. In addition, some Internet users use insecure passwords or passwords that are identical for different purposes. All this makes it easy for criminals. Even with e-mails that appear to come from the victim himself, the cyber criminals usually do not have access to the password of the mail program. Here, in most cases, they have only manipulated the header of the message accordingly.
Letters by mail with threats
As recently as October 2021, many people in Switzerland received a letter in the mail. It said, “We have been watching you for quite some time.” And they knew when you left the house and came home in the evening. “We know your email history and where your acquaintances and relatives live. We have your life in our hands.” The extortion letter scared people. The demand in this case: 0.5 bitcoin, about 25,000 francs. Whoever did not pay in time would have to fear for his life. Such extortion letters are punishable under the cybercrime policy.
Are you affected? – This is what you should do
The consumer advice center NRW explains how those affected should best react to such extortion attempts:
- If you receive an extortionist email, do not pay the demanded Bitcoins under any circumstances.
- Do not open any email attachments and do not reply to the sender.
- If you receive letter mail: Do not open the envelope. Hand it over to the police, even if it is already opened.
- Report “cybercrimepolice” the bitcoin address. The organization will report the case to the Bitcoin Abuse Database.
If you pay, you only ensure that the extortion scam goes on and on. Moreover, by opening attachments in dubious emails, there is a risk of malware getting onto the computer. But victims of extortion should also take action. Since extortion is a criminal offense, victims should definitely report the attempt.
Perpetrators are hard to find
It is true that the perpetrators are difficult to find. But only when extortion attempts become known is there any chance at all of bringing criminals to justice. In addition, it is helpful to forward the e-mail to reputable anti-fraud portals that regularly warn against such attempts. A possible contact point is also the website stop-sextortion.ch (see box below). This way, fewer victims fall for the scam. The portal also provides useful information for victims.
Hacks are not excluded
Hacks in connection with sextortion are unlikely, but not impossible. In the past, cybercriminals were able to exploit a security hole in the Android operating system discovered by the security company Checkmarx. Apps could gain access to the camera via this. Even though this gap is supposed to have been closed since July 2019, similar vulnerabilities could exist. Trojans like “PsiXBot” pose another risk. This malware can automatically start sound and video recordings as well as save them after accessing a porn website.
How can I protect myself from Bitcoin extortionists?
Internet users can minimize the risk of unauthorized third parties gaining access to your computer by your behavior. You should do so:
- Install software only from trusted sources
- Keep your operating system and programs up to date
- Check your own e-mail addresses
- Cover unused cameras
- Use reliable security software
By only installing programs that come from trusted sources, you minimize the risk of malware contamination. Software updates ensure that any security holes are closed quickly. You can use services such as haveibeenpwned.com or botfrei.de to check whether someone has hacked your e-mail account. A simple but effective protection is to cover all cameras. You should also regularly scan your computer and smartphone with up-to-date security software. This will help you detect Trojans, viruses and other malware.
Other Bitcoin extortion variants
Sextortion is indeed particularly common at the moment. However, it is only one variant of extortion with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Extortion attempts also hit businesses and even government agencies, as the following examples show:
- For example, cybercriminals had blackmailed the Swiss municipality of Rolle with several gigabytes of stolen data in May 2021. Here, too, the extortionists demanded cybercurrency as a ransom. When that failed to materialize, the criminals published the data – in some cases also on the darknet.
- In July 2021, hackers launched an attack against Comparis. The largest Swiss online comparison portal initially declared that it did not want to pay a ransom. In the end, however, it did – in anonymous cryptocurrency, of course.
According to Florian Schütz, the federal delegate for cybersecurity, these are not isolated cases. Rather, the number of such incidents had increased by around 30 percent in 2020 alone.
Politicians want to bring Bitcoin out of anonymity
Cybercurrencies like Bitcoin play an important role in the extortion scam. This is not only because Bitcoin is the world’s leading cryptocurrency. Extortion with Bitcoin also promises criminals special protection. Namely, the recipient of the transaction remains anonymous. Accordingly, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin act as a helpful infrastructure for sextortion as well as other cyber extortions.
This is exactly where Swiss politicians want to step in and declare war on anonymous cryptocurrencies. For example, the head of the SP’s parliamentary group in the Federal Parliament, Roger Nordmann, recently demanded in the media: “The use of cryptocurrencies in which the identification of the owner is not guaranteed must be banned.” However, this would not make Switzerland the first nation to enforce such regulation. In China, for example, the ban on cryptocurrencies is already a reality. In our country, however, the political demands are more moderate in comparison. The main problem is not the cryptocurrency itself, but the anonymity of the payee.
GNU Thaler - digital cash without anonymityCritics of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are mainly bothered by the anonymity of payment transactions. One possible alternative is the GNU Thaler. This combines the advantages of online payments and cash. In addition, anonymity is limited here. This is because the Swiss central bank can track the seller's name and account number. More about the GNU Thaler
FAQ – Frequently asked questions
The term sextortion is a portmanteau word. It is made up of “sex” and “extortion” – the English word for blackmail. The blackmailers demand something in return so that they will refrain from publishing compromising videos or photos with sexual content. Victims are often asked to pay a ransom.
When it comes to extortion, the ransom handover is often the biggest risk for criminals. Payment by cryptocurrency minimizes the risk. Because here the police cannot ambush the perpetrators. Tracking the flow of money also remains unsuccessful, since cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin guarantee anonymity.