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Anita Ramasastry

The FBI's Alert Regarding "Sextortion": Why Cyber Blackmail, Though Illegal, Is Difficult to Stop and What Computer Users Can Do


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Extortion and blackmail have been around for centuries--but now, they've gone online. Once, a would-be blackmailer or extortionist would have to physically trail and spy on his or her victim, risking being spotted. Now, however, all that is necessary is a computer, and an online identity can hide the perpetrator's true identity.

Today, a blackmail or extortion plan may begin with a hacker's getting into an Internet user's pc and searching for embarrassing nude photos or messages. If a hacker takes control of a computer, he may be able to control the webcam and microphone. Thus, he can peer into the computer user's bedroom, hear his target's conversations, and know every keystroke she makes online. In addition to being a remote voyeur, the hacker may also become an extortionist -- threatening to reveal embarrassing secrets to a romantic partner or, in the case of a teenager, a parent, unless money is provided or additional intimate photos or videos are shared.

Or, such a scheme may begin with a seemingly innocuous online "friend" request, or a comment by a chat room buddy. Such a request or comment may lead to flirtation, which then results in the victim's transmitting compromising photos to the online "friend." Once those photos have been turned over, the "friend" has leverage to get more compromising photos, and/or to demand money to keep the photos secret.

Such schemes are common enough that they now have a name: Getting sensitive personal and sexual information from an Internet user and using it against that person is referred to as "sextortion."

In this column, I will describe the new phenomenon of sextortion; explain why such conduct is illegal under existing law; and discuss what steps Internet users -- including teens and their parents -- can take to avoid being the victim of a sextortion scheme.

The FBI's Recent Alert, Following on the Heels of a Major Sextortion Scheme

Just this past month, the FBI published an alert for Internet users, asking them to beware of the new threat posed by "sextortion" -- a term first used in a federal affidavit. The alert followed on the heels of a major arrest by the Los Angeles FBI this past summer. The arrestee was a 31-year-old California man, whose name has not been revealed. The man allegedly had engaged in the sextortion of more than 200 victims, many of who were teenage girls; and had invaded more than 100 computers.

The arrestee is alleged to have hacked into victims' computers; installed malicious code; downloaded sexually-compromising photos; and used those photos to extort more photos and videos from his victims.

The FBI said that the arrestee used a popular social-networking site and posed as a friend, relative, or other trusted contact in order to spread a computer virus that enabled him to access the victims' computers. In several instances, he posed online as a person's friend or sister, and sent the victim messages with attachments asking if she wanted to watch a scary video. If victims opened the attachment, the virus self-installed surreptitiously. Unbeknownst to the victim, the hacker then had control over her computer -- including all files, folders, images and devices.

The FBI alleges that, by threatening to share private and risqué information with their parents and email contacts, the man pressured the young women into providing him with additional pictures and videos. According to an FBI news report, in one example, the hacker attached a pornographic picture of his victim to an e-mail, and told her that unless she sent him a sexually-explicit video of herself, he would notify her parents about all the photos he had found on her computer.

The arrestee is alleged to have used a variety of screen names and e-mail addresses, including some suggestive ones such as Playgrl37 and Hotchit13w, in carrying out his scheme.

Sextortion is Illegal under Existing Criminal Laws

Prosecutors say they are seeing "sextortion" crimes on the rise, according to the Associated Press (AP). Unfortunately, many of the easiest targets of sextortion are teenagers (male and female alike).

At present, no one is compiling statistics on sextortion, but the AP says that federal prosecutors highlight several recent high-profile cases to emphasize the growing problem. In one case, Jonathan Vance, a 24-year old sextortionist, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for sending threatening emails on social-networking sites to extort nude pictures from more than 50 young women in Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.

The way which sextortion is carried out may seem novel, as it often involves hacking and the unlawful installation of software on a victim's computer, without their knowledge or consent. The relevant acts , however, likely are illegal under existing criminal laws.

Sextortionists can be prosecuted under laws prohibiting exploitation, and even child pornography laws, if the victim is under 18 years of age . State criminal laws broadly prohibit extortion. Moreover, the use of the Internet can bring the crime under federal anti-extortion laws. One federal statute, for example, prohibits a person with the "intent to extort from any person ... any money or other thing of value" from "transmit[ting] in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to injure the property or reputation of the addressee ..."

Still, because of the very nature of extortion, it is possible that some subset of victims may never report the crime, and may simply comply with the extortionist's demands. That leads to a key question: How can sextortion be prevented?

What Can Internet Users, and Parents of Internet-Using Teens, Do to Prevent Sextortion?

Since many of the victims of sextortion are young adults and teens, this is a problem that both parents and children need to guard against.

The largest lesson for teens and young adults (and really, for anyone using the Internet) to learn is simply to avoid sharing sexually-explicit photos of oneself with others online. Unfortunately, today's beloved boyfriend may be next year's sworn enemy.

Another lesson is that the social-networking-site message that seems to come from a teenage friend, might really come from an adult stranger. Teens may feel that they are too smart to be duped, but it appears that, in the case in which the FBI issued the alert, it was surprisingly easy to dupe a large group of Internet users.

In addition, a major lesson is not to send or keep on your laptop, personal computer, or any media device, nude or sexually suggestive photos of yourself or anyone else. Even if you intend to share those photos only with a beloved partner, a hacker may be able to find and transmit them, and then the "sextortion" scheme will begin.

Of course, Internet users need to keep their anti-virus software updated. And parental-control software may also be an option where teens are involved.

Some safety experts warn parents against allowing their teens to use laptops or computers in the bedroom -- but that may be unrealistic, especially as many teens do homework in their bedrooms. However, parents can disable computers' cameras, require doors to be open when the computer is being used, or take other measures in order to prevent sextortion from taking place.

As noted above, extortion is a crime that needs urgently to be prevented, for if it occurs, authorities may never hear about it, because its victims may see no real option but to comply with the extortionist's demand. That's another strong reason to talk to teens now, before it is too late.

Anita Ramasastry, a FindLaw columnist, is the D. Wayne and Anne Gittinger Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and a Director of the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology. She has previously written on business law, cyberlaw, computer data security issues, and other legal issues for this site, which contains an archive of her columns

Ramasastry is currently on leave from the University to work for the federal government. The views expressed in this column are solely those of Ramasastry in her personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of any of her employers, past or present.

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