Webcam ‘sextortion’ cases are on the rise, says U.K.’s National Crime Agency

If you’re a fan of the show Black Mirror, season 2 of which started airing on Netflix on October 21, then you may have already watched episode three, Shut Up and Dance. No spoilers, but the show’s writers pull no punches in dealing with the issue of internet privacy, webcams, and online blackmail.

Like all of the show’s episodes, this one highlights a very real and growing problem around the world directly related to the ubiquitous use of technology. Falling under the general criminal category of “sextortion,” webcam blackmail cases are growing — the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency (NCA) released a report indicating that cases in that country have more than doubled in 2016, as Ars Technica reports.

Webcam blackmail is the process by which a criminal will gain access to compromising video of a victim, often sexual in nature, in which the victim is manipulated by the criminal into performing an embarrassing act. Then, the victim is threatened with the widespread release of the compromising video if some amount of money isn’t paid to the criminal. Numerous methods are used to convince the victim to create the video in the first place, including using fake identities or hacking into computers, but the result is the same.

Worse yet, according to the NCA, four people committed suicide in the U.K. as a result of blackmail schemes. Victims are predominantly males between the ages of 21 and 30, representing a full 95 percent of victims. Younger boys between the ages of 11 and 20 were also represented in significant numbers. The following video provides the NCA’s definition of sextortion, some of the history behind the criminal movement, and what people can do to protect against it.

The NCA offers up some advice: Go to the police, contact your internet service provider, and don’t pay the ransom. If you’ve already arranged for payment, then cancel it if you can and make note of how and where it was collected. Suspend, but don’t completely close or delete, your online accounts, such as Facebook, so that they can’t be used to disseminate the video but can be used in the investigation; and if a video is hosted on a service like YouTube, then report it and insist that it be blocked.

Sextortion is a worldwide problem, and if the U.K. is seeing this level of activity, it’s likely that other countries are experiencing the issue just as strongly. Speculative fiction like Black Mirror paints a bleak picture of how technology can be used to commit the most heinous of crimes, and unfortunately, it’s not always very far off the mark.


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