This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
We all have secrets of some sort. These may be the dark, dramatic secrets found on television shows—but probably not. For most people, these secrets are potentially embarrassing but not anything illegal or harmful. They are just things we wouldn’t particularly want aired to our friends and family.
Unfortunately, these are the types of secrets most targeted by online blackmailers. So what should you do if you find yourself on the receiving end of blackmail threats?
What is online blackmail?
Under United States law, blackmail is defined as 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. This is legally different from extortion, which is the use of threat to demand payment, property, or services from someone. Both, however, are federal crimes.
Many online blackmailers claim that the law doesn’t apply to Internet communications, but this is not true. Many online blackmailers have been prosecuted and sentenced for activities conducted entirely online.
Most online blackmail centers not around exposing illegal acts, but rather around 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, then use those 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.
First steps in dealing with online blackmail
If you find yourself the target of blackmail, contact the police. As explained above, online blackmail is illegal and quite prosecutable. 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, the police should be able to protect you from the very real threats to your safety that are posed by online blackmail.
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 off of your computer. Printouts and photographs are a good idea. A thumb drive can also work, though there’s the risk that the blackmailer will 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 or another online service, immediately change your password. 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 a number of privacy protection 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 that the email is legitimate.
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.