Cyber criminals move to exploit ‘safe’ social media spaces

Friend requests and easy conversation can quickly lead to threats of blackmail, as users fail to take suitable precautions

Following a few glasses of wine, John’s inhibitions had dropped when he went online to talk to a woman he had met through an internet dating site. Although they hadn’t met in person, they had been exchanging messages for about a week and a half.

Because of the familiarity built up through previous messages, and the effects of the alcohol, when she suggested that she would remove some of her clothes if he did the same, he agreed. Straight away he realised he had been scammed.

“They said ‘Now I’ve recorded you. If you don’t pay me I’ll put the video all over Facebook and YouTube.’ My instant thought was that I had no choice and that I’d pay anything, because I thought that if they posted the video it would ruin my business and family relationships,” says the 60-year-old.

John is one of almost 900 people who have reported to the police that they’ve been the victim of “sextortion” cybercrime rackets – a growing trend among criminals to dupe men into performing sex acts on camera and then demanding money, threatening that the footage will be put online if they don’t pay up.

Victims are typically targeted on social media where criminals, posing as young women, engage them in conversation before eventually coaxing them into sexual chat aimed at making them expose themselves. The number of crimes reported has doubled since last year, throwing light on how social media users frequently apply much more lax security rules in their online life than they would offline or even when using things such as email. Not limited to “sexploitation” scams, criminals can also target people for bank passwords and in property transactions.

“When we are publishing on social media, we don’t see that as being public because we are at home working at a laptop. It does not feel like it is outside so the indicators we are getting are that we are in a safe space,” says Prof Tim Watson, director of the Cybersecurity Centre at the University of Warwick.

Spotting the spear

Many people would consider themselves able to spot a “phishing” attempt, whereby emails are sent which appear genuine but instead contain links aimed at gathering information such as bank details. There is less awareness around “spear phishing”, where specific people or groups of people are targeted by fraudsters, sometimes with information gleaned from social media, such as what football team or music they like.

Research in Germany showed this was a particular problem on social media. Zinaida Benenson from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg measured how many people would click on a potentially malicious link in an email, then compared this with how many did the same with a message received on Facebook. The results were that one in five clicked a link from a stranger in an email; more than twice as many did so on Facebook. “It especially goes for sharing pictures, because this is something that is done a lot via Facebook. That is what some of the participants told us,” says Benenson.

Before sending a friend request or a message inviting users to link to them, the criminals build up information about people which is publicly available, Watson says. “They know what football team you support, they know what sort of food you like. They can see your pattern of life from what you have publicly made available. What that does is show them very cheaply and quickly on that scale who the likely, most productive victims are going to be,” he says. “It won’t be a random email. It will be mentioning people you know. It will be mentioning things you are interested in. It will be capturing you late at night when you are tired. It is building on the confidence indicators you have given away.”

It’s not just you

The National Crime Agency (NCA), which revealed the extent of sexploitation, hopes the publicity around the cases will reveal other victims – which could number in the thousands. Over the past 12 months, four men have killed themselves after being convinced to perform sex acts and then blackmailed. Last year, 17-year-old Ronan Hughes from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, is believed to have taken his own life after he was tricked into posting intimate photos. In Romania in October a man was subsequently charged with producing and distributing indecent images of children and blackmail.

“Previously people have been hesitant to come forward because of that embarrassment factor, this idea that it could affect them personally or career-wise. So they don’t come forward and they pay,” says Roy Sinclair, from the NCA’s anti-kidnap and extortion unit.

This new type of sophisticated online scam, whether through dating sites or set up to extract bank information, can affect anyone, Watson says. In the same way a scam may happen on someone’s doorstep, confidence tricks have now been transferred online.

“People should not feel embarrassed for falling for these. Everybody falls for them. Computer security professionals will fall for them. And it is not fair to turn around to someone who has become a victim and say ‘Why did you click on that link? Don’t click on a friend request from strangers’. These people are not strangers because they may have already become friends with some of your friends. How do you protect yourself against this? It is quite difficult, you just have to have that sceptical voice inside your head and there are other ways of contacting people,” Watson says.

In an era when people are constantly bombarded with correspondence, awareness can be difficult, Benenson says. “In real life, being vigilant is extremely difficult and people make mistakes even if they try,” she said.

Staying safe

The solutions to avoiding this next generation of online scams appear simple, yet clearly are often not observed.

“If someone presents you with a friend request and five minutes later gets very intimate with you , if someone is remarkably out of your league… just have that sceptical voice in your head saying ‘Is this the truth or am I being scammed here?,” Watson says. “These are people who have a great ability to pick on victims through the internet, picking on them using very strong human emotions.”

Mark James, a security specialist with IT security firm ESET, says you should research people before you deal with them online. “If it’s via social media check their background or history, see how long they’ve been active and try searching other services – chances are they will be active on different platforms if they are legitimate,” he says. “Be very wary of requests for photos or videos and always remember, once you post something you have no control on what others do with it – regardless of if you think it’s secure and safe, it’s never 100% private.

“The best approach is never do it, no matter how safe you feel. Always take a few minutes and think about the worst-case scenario if something goes wrong, and remember if it looks too good to be true, it often is.”


■ If you are approached with an online friend request, pause and ask yourself the question of how you know them. “It involves looking at it and saying, ‘Do I remember meeting this person? Are they friends with anyone else I know? Why have they suddenly chosen to ask me for a friend request?’,” says Roy Sinclair from the National Crime Agency.

■ Even if you do end up talking to someone you met online who you think is authentic, beware that all may not be as it seems. Fraudsters can use pre-programmed footage so it appears that someone is responding to you on video.

■ In the event that a scam happens, don’t pay money online. Claims that it will be a one-off payment are no guarantee. Contact the police and don’t delete your account, so that any evidence can be preserved for investigation.


Shane Hickey

The GuardianTramp

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