Sextortion: “Leave €50,000 in a trash can or I’ll share your sexual videos”

Cybercriminals are blackmailing victims with intimate images, which they obtain via private online chats

Isabel Rubio
A user views a photograph of a naked man.
A user views a photograph of a naked man.I. R.

At age 17, Álvaro (not his real name) wasn’t clear about his sexual orientation: “I wanted to try new things to see what I actually liked,” he explains. In this process of experimentation he ended up on an online chat site where, without having to sign-up, you could meet people to have online sex with. He started to regularly talk to a guy who “didn’t like to show anything,” but who had a lot of requests. “I would record videos and he would tell me what to do via voice messages.” What seemed at first like an innocent game turned into a nightmare. The guy he was talking to started to blackmail him: he asked Álvaro to leave €50,000 in a trash can or he would share all the material that he had been sent.

I was scared, I felt humiliated and ashamed, but I couldn’t escape. I was cornered Álvaro , victim of sextortion

What happened to Álvaro, who is now 18, isn’t an isolated case. It is known as “sextortion” and is a form of blackmail in which a person coerces another to do things against their will. “Most commonly the attacker gains the trust of the victim by talking to them and during this time they also gain delicate information from them,” explains Sara G. Antúnez, a criminal defense lawyer for Stop Haters, the first Spanish not-for-profit association dedicated to fighting online harassment. “Once they have the material, they threaten to share it.”

The attackers, whose main objective is to get money, “take advantage of the victim’s fear” by telling them that they have their intimate images and that they’re going to release them all over the internet. The guy that Álvaro was speaking to had taken screenshots of the videos he had received. “He sent me my own photos and told me to pay him, and said that if I told anyone or reported him he would post everything on the internet and send the photos to my house.” But Álvaro didn’t have the money. “I begged him not to ask for so much and told him I was going to work and save, so he told me to make up for it with more sexual images, and I’d do it,” said the young man, who admits to having given in on many occasions because he was “so scared.”

Sometimes the victim doesn’t realize the extent of the situation until it’s too late Sara G. Antúnez, criminal defense lawyer

Like Álvaro, many other victims fall into the same trap, according to Antúnez: “It’s very common that the first reaction is to give in to the blackmail for fear of such distribution. The attacker always chooses delicate moments, which lead to a state of nervousness and extreme harassment for the victim so that they act quickly and without thinking,” she says.

The threats that Álvaro received during the course of a year seemed to be serious. “When I stopped talking and answering him on the chat, he sent a letter with a photo to my house. Luckily I picked it up instead of my father,” recalls the young man, who to this day doesn’t know how the attacker got his address. Seeing that the threats didn’t stop and that he was “never going to get the money,” he decided to look for help. “I was scared, I felt humiliated and ashamed, but I couldn’t escape. I was cornered.”

That’s when he contacted Stop Haters. “These situations are very complicated. Sometimes the victim doesn’t realize the extent of the situation until it’s too late,” explains Antúez. In addition to a team of lawyers to advise the victim in the legal field, the association also counts on psychologists and computer scientists. For a few months, they investigated who was behind these threats. They reported that the man is “much older” than the victim, and while for now they do not want to give out details, they have confirmed that they already have enough evidence and have taken the case to court.

There is nothing to guarantee that if we pay the said amount the attacker will stop Pablo Fernández Alonso, lawyer specializing in cybersecurity

Ruining a person’s life by distributing intimate content without their consent is a crime. Article 243 of the Spanish Criminal Code states that this act can be punished with between one and five years in prison. But unlike Álvaro, a high percentage of people affected do not report the blackmail, according to the Civil Guard. This makes it difficult to analyze the scale of the problem. In its Internet Safety Report, the cybersecurity business WatchGuard notes that sextortion was the second-most-used technique by cybercriminals in the last quarter of 2018, according to its research.

In Álvaro’s case, the threats seem to have stopped: “He must know that we found him because he’s stopped.” Although the 18-year-old says he now feels “protected,” he is still having a hard time because of what happened to him and has ensured that he will never go back to webpages where there is no registration process. “We are all free to do what we want, but on secure sites,” he says.

An increase in cases

This year the seriousness of certain behaviors on social networks has been re-emphasized after a Spanish employee at vehicle manufacturer Iveco committed suicide when a sexual video of her was shared among her work colleagues. Stop Haters has noted an increase in cases of sextortion in recent months. Pablo Fernández Alonso, a lawyer specializing in cybersecurity for Stop Haters and for TQAbogados, explains that “the moment we upload or share a photo online we will never know where it could end up. It’s like a digital fingerprint that is going to be online forever.”

There are “two types of attackers,” according to the experts. On the one hand there are ex-partners or people who have had some kind of relationship with the victim. On the other, those who rely on the anonymity of the internet and pose as someone else to gain the victim’s trust.

The latter is what Nuria (not her real name) encountered. What started as likes and retweets between her and another person online, eventually turned into messages and exchanging phone numbers. “We never sent photos but one day people on the internet started to write to me telling me a fake profile had sent them audios from our ‘hot’ conversations.” Nuria then received a message from her attacker saying if she didn't “deposit money in an account in another country, one I’d never heard of,” they would not stop sending messages with these audios.

The error of paying

Paying up is never the solution. “There is nothing to guarantee that if the said amount is paid the attacker will stop. It wouldn’t be surprising if, once we do, the approach persists or gets even worse,” explains Fernández Alonso. The number of people who agree to pay “is not very high” as the amount asked for is usually very large. “This makes it difficult for the victim to get the money so alarm bells go off in their head and this gives them the strength to seek help and support,” he explains.

English version by Alicia Kember.

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