Anonymity is what consumers expect when surfing the web. In response, hackers have recently started using sextortion scam emails, which are designed to embarrass individuals who frequently browse pornographic websites and coerce them into paying hush money in bitcoin.

With ransomware, hackers typically send individuals a link, and when they click, malware invades their computers. Security vendors have noticed a variation on the popular scam: sextortion emails. These scams have varying levels of depth and sophistication.

What is sextortion?

The simplest sextortion scams blast out a list of emails in bulk, claiming the sender has accessed the person’s computer and knows that they have been watching pornography. The note adds that there is video evidence of the recipient pleasuring themselves, captured over the webcam.

The criminals routinely tweak the malware to make it more effective, so more sophisticated attacks are emerging. In certain instances, the bad guys have loaded malware onto a user’s computer, either by finding a hole in their system defenses or having the user click on a bogus link. One strain, dubbed Varenyky, misappropriates NirSoft’s WebBrowserPassView and Mail PassView password recovery tool and uses it to steal victims’ passwords. As a result, the threatening note includes references to a user’s passwords.

In extreme cases, the hackers deploy remote control desktop software and navigate menus, read texts, take screenshots, click on screens, adjust windows, and even record screen activity. According to ESET, to date, this level of encroachment has been limited to customers of Orange S.A., a French Internet Service Provider.  Such malware searches for French porn-related words, records any associated interactions and uploads the information to a server. The criminals then send the victims proof of their transgressions and instructions about how to keep their habits private.

Sextortion scams gain popularity

The ruses have the potential to be successful for a few reasons.

  • First, many individuals watch pornography on their computers. Two adult sites are among the World’s Top 10 most popular websites, according to Similarweb, an Internet tracking company.
  • Second, users do not understand what online monitoring is and is not possible, so some assume that the threats are real.

What should a sextortion victim do?

First, do not panic or overreact. Quickly close the program and shut down your system. Take a breath. The chances are good that your system has fallen victim to an unsophisticated attack, and has not been significantly compromised.

Even if the hacker has one of your passwords, your computer may be safe. Scammers buy lists of emails and stolen passwords from third parties. They are like fishermen waiting for a nibble. They send their malware out to potentially millions of people, hoping that enough of them bite, so they can score some quick cash.

That point brings us to the next tip:  avoid contact with the crooks. Do not take the bait. Usually, they do not know that you have downloaded the software unless you tell them.

Protect your system against sextortion scams

#1 To be safe, change your password

If an attacker genuinely has your password, they have other ways to turn a quick buck than blasting out extortion emails in bulk. But it’s better to be safe than sorry. Also, a password manager can help you manage your login credentials and ensure strong password selections.

#2 Keep your systems up-to-date

Make sure that you have the basics, such as a firewall, a Virtual Private Network, and an ad blocker. Be suspicious of embedded links and attachments, and check the sender’s full email address before opening anything.

#3 If a more serious attack has taken place, alert law enforcement

How much impact the local police will offer depends on where one lives. In the United States, the local FBI branch may be in the best position to offer help if the attack seems sophisticated.

Hackers focus on the weakest link in the security chain. Ransomware has been popular because users sometimes click on links without closely examining them. Hackers have coupled that liability with the popularity of pornographic Websites to create a new ruse, one that users need to guard against.