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People warned not to fall for sextortion scam as criminals 'view pandemic as opportunity'

There has been an increase in the number of online scams reported during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Apr 27th 2020, 6:31 AM 42,927 13

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN warned not to fall for online scams amid a recent increase in reports of extortion attempts.

Dozens of so-called sextortion scams have been reported to An Garda Síochána and the PSNI in recent weeks.

People are told if they don’t pay in the region of €2,000 in bitcoin via a link provided, compromising photos of them will be sent to their families, or that images of them accessing pornographic websites will be publicly released.

Versions of the scam have being doing the rounds for some time but there has been an increase in the number of emails reported to the authorities amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Detective Superintendent Pat Ryan of the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau (GNCCB) said many criminals view the pandemic as an opportunity to make money online, typically targeting vulnerable or young people.

“Phishing scams are nothing new but the fact is a lot of people are now at home more often than they usually would be. Criminals are going to exploit any opportunity they can,” Ryan told TheJournal.ie.

“We’ve a lot of vulnerable people working from home at the minute, there are also a lot of young people working from home who are very active online,” he added.

Ryan said it’s very unlikely the scammer has any compromising images or video footage, adding: “They’re just chancing their arm.”

He said criminals’ attempts to extort money from people are “neverending”, and they will use the pandemic to their advantage. 

Aside from phishing scams, he noted that several websites have been created in recent weeks purporting to sell everything from facemasks to Covid-19 vaccine and cures (neither of which exist yet).

‘They quoted my old password’

Emails in these phishing scams often state that the sender knows the password the receiver uses for their email account or a certain website.

Sometimes the password the sender shares is actually the receiver’s current or previous password, making the scam seem more genuine. Ryan said the scammers may have accessed the password from a hacking incident that occurred in the past. 

In one such email seen by TheJournal.ie, the sender informs the recipient they know their email password, contact list and digital activity over the last few months.

The email states that the sender has a recording of the person masturbating while visiting a porn website.

“I have the whole recording. If you think I’m fooling around, simply reply proof [sic] and I will be forwarding the recording randomly to 6 people you know.

“It might be your friends, co workers, boss, mother and father,” the email notes.

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.03.16 A section of one of the scam emails sent to people.

John*, who received a number of such emails recently, said he knew they were a scam but was uncomfortable the sender had correctly identified an old password. 

“The scary thing is they quoted my old password … I hadn’t used this for long time,” John told us. 

He blocked the sender and reported the email to his provider as a phishing attempt.

John said he received two follow-up emails from different addresses but with the same content.

Local garda station

People who receive such emails are advised to not engage with the sender but to keep the email so they can share it with gardaí. People cannot report the scams online but are told to contact their local garda station about the issue.

“Preserve the email, it may contain vital information which we can use as part of our investigation,” Ryan said.

John said many people will not want to go to their local garda station with this type of information – he believes there should be an option to report such scams online. 

“That is not a good way to encourage people to take this further – a simple email to the Garda Cyber Crime office would be far more suitable in these circumstances,” he said.

“It is most disappointing that the only way to report the scam is to contact my local garda station. This will obviously mean that many people will be afraid to take the matter further.”

Ryan said he understands some people may be reluctant to go to their local garda station given the personal nature of the issue, but said every case will be treated sensitively and confidentially.

I would ask members of the public who are subject to these particular crimes, to let us know. Don’t be afraid, don’t be embarrassed, we’re here to help and help is available.

Ryan said any children or young people who are targeted should talk to their parents or guardians as soon as possible.

He said parents need to take an active role in their children’s online activity.

“It’s very easy, especially in the current environment to give young children a device that has access the internet.

“We’re all doing it, but you should know what your children are doing online, talk to your children.”

‘A good day’s work’ 

Ryan said, as far of he is aware, none of the people who reported the scam to gardaí in the last few weeks paid out money.

However, if someone does transfer money, they should contact gardaí as soon as possible in order to increase their chances of getting their money back.

“If some does fall victim, as soon as they become aware, they should report it to gardaí immediately,” Ryan said.

He added that the payment “could well be gone already” but the longer a person waits to report the incident, the less likely you are to get it back.

Ryan said most people don’t fall for the scams but, because people are asked to transfer sums in the region of €2,000, even if the scammer gets “a small number of people to pay, that’s a good day’s work for them”.

The GNCCB works with the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau when investigating such scams, as well as international bodies.

These types of scams often originate outside Ireland and AGS regularly works with Europol and police agencies in other jurisdictions in a bid to stamp out such scams and find those who are responsible.

The PSNI issued a warning recently after receiving dozens of reports about such scams.

Ryan said, as well as reporting such scams to gardaí, people should keep antivirus and software up-to-date on their devices and use strong passwords. 

More information can be read here

*John’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

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Órla Ryan

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