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Understanding Internet blackmail laws

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by Staff Writer

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

The interpersonal connectivity of the Internet has created many wonderful things, but unfortunately it also has a dark side. One of the more pernicious of these is online blackmail. If you’ve ever been threatened online by someone trying to force you to do or not do something, then you have experienced Internet blackmail.

It’s important for anyone who uses the Internet to understand this threat and what do about it. Below we’ll discuss the most common forms of online blackmail and how you can protect yourself. Also check out our related articles on the topic:

What is blackmail and how is it different from extortion?

Blackmail is related to extortion, although they are classified differently under American law.  Blackmail is the use of a threat to prevent someone from doing something they might otherwise be entitled to do. For example, the threat of spreading salacious photos of a victim if he or she reports a crime constitutes blackmail.

Extortion is the use of threat to demand payment or delivery of property or services. An example of extortion is a hacker that threatens to delete the contents of your computer unless you pay a ransom.

A third related crime is libel, which is the threat of spreading malicious rumors unless a fee is paid.

How does Internet blackmail work?

Generally, blackmail over the Internet takes the form of a hacker breaching your PC and finding something you don’t want to be revealed in your personal data. In many cases, it’s a private photograph, possibly of an erotic nature. Subsequently, the blackmailer demands either financial compensation or more photographs. In the former case, this crime is sometimes colloquially referred to as sextortion. If the blackmailer takes control of your webcam to generate compromising images or videos, the crime is referred to as webcam blackmail.

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Often the blackmailer has multiple victims. One sextortist had over 200 targets. In the United States, many online blackmailers target teenagers. In more conservative countries with strong social stigmas against showing women’s bodies, sextortion and online blackmail have led to horrifying results, including suicide, rape, and murder. The truth is that online blackmail can affect anyone, anywhere, no matter your age or gender.

Blackmail is illegal even on the Internet

First and foremost, blackmail (regardless of the method used) is against United States law. Many blackmailers will claim that the lack of specific online extortion laws shields them from prosecution. This is false. Blackmail is a crime, and there are no loopholes that an Internet blackmailer can use to avoid being prosecuted.

Quite the opposite, since most Internet blackmail starts with the hacking of a victim’s computer, many additional criminal laws can be leveled against the attacker. Some of these include laws against computer trespassing, unlawful wiretapping, fraud, spamming, and/or communication interference, depending on the specifics of the situation.

Sextortion, in particular, may violate a number of additional state and federal laws on top of all of these. Laws surrounding sexual assault and coercion may be involved, and if the victim is underage, child pornography laws may also be relevant.

What should you do if you are being blackmailed?

First, contact the police, especially in cases of sextortion. Even if you have done something wrong or potentially illegal, you risk significantly greater danger if you try to deal with the situation alone.

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Second, don’t give in to the blackmailer’s demands. You may think that by agreeing to do what they want, they will then leave you alone. This rarely happens. Blackmailers are unlikely to stop targeting you as long as they have a source of leverage. The potential for abuse and threats is enormous and can ruin your life. Cooperating can end up being worse than the possible shame you might feel if the worst happens and the blackmailer follows through with his or her threats.

Third, since the blackmail likely originated from a hack, you will need to completely stop using your computer, smartphone, or other hacked device, at least temporarily. Power it down completely so that it cannot be accessed remotely. Don’t try to reformat the device or remove the hack until the police tell you it is okay to do so; you don’t want to destroy evidence that might be used to stop the blackmailer.

Fourth, using a different device that you know to be safe, change all of your passwords, including email, social media, and online banking. Once the blackmailer realizes you are no longer using your hacked device, he or she will look for alternative ways of blackmailing you, so you need to make sure they can’t access any personal accounts.

How can I avoid being blackmailed over the Internet?

Educating yourself on the ways online blackmail works is the first step. You’ll be less likely to fall for these scams if you know what to look for. That said, it’s unfortunately not always possible to avoid the situation completely. One blackmailer targeted victims he knew by sending them a video with an embedded virus. It’s impossible to protect yourself when someone you know and trust turns on you.

Another way you can avoid being blackmailed is to not keep compromising information or photos on your devices. If you do need to keep sensitive materials like this, make sure they are stored in an encrypted, password-protected file that cannot be accessed by a hacker.

If your computer has a built-in webcam, it’s also a good idea to keep it covered up when not in use.

For additional tips, check out our rules to keep from oversharing on social networks and our suggestions on protecting your children from stalkers online.