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How to deal with online blackmail scams

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by Staff Writer

A hand reaching out of a laptop computer to take money from a person's hands against a yellow background.

This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

We all have secrets of some sort, and that’s where online blackmail scams get their start.

These secrets may be the dark, dramatic ones found on television shows or merely a compromising photo you took when you were young. We all make mistakes.

For most of us, these secrets are potentially embarrassing but not anything illegal or harmful. They are just things we wouldn’t particularly want our friends and family to know about.

Unfortunately, these are the types of secrets most targeted by online blackmail scams. These scammers are relentless.

So, what should you do if you find yourself on the receiving end of blackmail threats?

In this article, we’ll show you what online blackmail is and what its characteristics are. We’ll also give you clear instructions on how to recognize the type of scam being used and how to protect yourself.

What is online blackmail?

Under United States law, blackmail and extortion are the use of information to make someone do something they wouldn’t otherwise, or the reverse, to prevent someone from doing something they probably would. The threat demands payment, property, or services. However, blackmail and extortion laws may vary in U.S. states and in other countries.

Online blackmailers claim that the law doesn’t apply to internet communications, but this is not true. In reality, online blackmailers have been prosecuted and sentenced for activities conducted entirely online.

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Most online blackmail involves the threat of releasing sensitive personal photographs or information.

Nude photographs or video recordings are a common target. Sometimes, the blackmailer will use the victim’s webcam to make recordings without their knowledge, and then use those images to force the victim to do something.

In other cases, blackmail stems from professional activities or the threat of releasing business secrets.

For more information on the different types of online blackmail, check out this article.

Online blackmail attempts are becoming increasingly prevalent as more individuals and businesses conduct their affairs in the digital realm. So, we want to give you some clear red flags to look out for.

Characteristics of online blackmail attempts

The characteristics of these attempts can vary widely, from threatening to release compromising information to demanding payment in exchange for not damaging a person’s reputation or releasing sensitive data.

Understanding the common traits of online blackmail attempts can help you or your organization recognize and respond to these threats effectively.

Sense of urgency and immediacy

Online blackmail scams rely on the creation of a sense of urgency and immediacy to frighten victims and manipulate them into making impulsive decisions without carefully considering the consequences.

This fear is often heightened by the use of alarming language or threats, pushing the victim to act quickly to avoid perceived negative outcomes.

Some even use the sneaky technique of tracking the time from the moment an email is opened, adding to the pressure—especially if they have video footage or some other type of intimate image you don’t want shared.

In grooming potential victims, scammers use techniques to elicit secrecy as well, such as requesting confidentiality and forbidding the victim from discussing the situation with anyone else.

By creating a shroud of secrecy and emphasizing the need for urgent action, scammers make it difficult for the victim to seek outside help or thoroughly consider their options. This is why it’s so important to learn how to protect your digital privacy.

First steps in dealing with online blackmail

If you find yourself the target of blackmail, contact the police and your email provider. They need to know what’s going on.

As explained above, online blackmail is illegal and may be quite prosecutable, based on the laws in your location.

In addition, it tends to leave a digital paper trail for the police to follow. Many perpetrators are caught and punished after the victims go to the police.

At the very least, you should consult your local law enforcement to see how they can help protect you from the very real threats to your safety that are posed by online blackmail.

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Next, document everything, preferably in a way that doesn’t involve the compromised device.

Take screenshots of all correspondence the blackmailer sends to you: every email, every chat session—everything you’ve been sent needs to be collected and saved somewhere offline.

Printouts and photographs are a good idea. A thumb drive can also work, though there’s some risk the blackmailer might infect your thumb drive with a virus and compromise the data.

After documenting the blackmail, stop using the device or account that has been hacked.

If it is a computer, power it off.

If you’re being blackmailed through social media sites or another online service, immediately change the passwords to your affected accounts. You should also contact the website’s customer support staff to explain the situation. They may be able to freeze the perpetrator’s access to their service.

How to protect against online blackmail

Most online blackmail attacks start out with hacking, either of one of your online accounts or your computer or smartphone.

There are several privacy protection and security setting steps you can take to make it less likely that you will be hacked. That, in turn, makes it less likely that someone will be able to gain access to your systems and blackmail you.

Start with these tips:

  • Use strong passwords: Too often, people use easy-to-hack passwords like their initials and birthdate, or “password123.” Make sure you choose hard-to-guess passwords. Ideally, use randomly generated strings of numbers, letters, and symbols. You can use a password manager tool to avoid having to remember all these difficult passwords.
  • Lock down social media accounts: Blackmailers will turn to social media to look for information that could be used to hack you. Make sure that the public profiles of all your social media accounts are locked down and do not reveal any information about you, your professional life, or your family.
  • Remove sources of personal information: There are dozens of online data brokers that collect your information from across the internet and sell it to anyone who asks. Remove yourself from as many of these services as possible.
  • Learn how to spot phishing emails: Phishing is the act of using tantalizing information to get someone to click on a link that installs a virus. Often, phishing emails are disguised as security alerts or other urgent messages. Generally speaking, if you receive an email with a link in it, never click unless you’re absolutely certain the email is legitimate.

Many online scams come from a lack of protecting your contact details and careless social media settings, plus a lack of understanding of the above tips.

Although there are no absolute guarantees against online blackmail, if you follow these steps, you will be much less likely to fall victim to these nefarious plots.

That said, if you do find yourself embroiled in a blackmail scam, contact law enforcement immediately.

If you need some advice from experts, we’re here. Give us a call if you have any questions. Would you like to see what scammers and other people can find about you online right now? If yes, grab your free reputation report card.

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