One of the most challenging problems on the Internet is the fact that it has made our secrets, whether personal or professional, much easier to access.
Many people will state that they have “nothing to hide,” and it’s true that few of us are engaged in any seriously illegal activity. Even still, there may be perfectly legal but embarrassing information in your life that you’d like to keep hidden: private photos, personal discussions, or business secrets—these are often what Internet blackmail targets.
To protect yourself, you first need to know what kinds of blackmail happen on the Internet. You may also want to explore our other articles on this topic:
Categories of blackmail and related crimes
Blackmail, extortion and several other related crimes fall under the general category of coercion, in which when someone is forced to do or not do something. The specifics of how the crimes are defined varies from country to country, but coercion-related crimes are almost always illegal.
Of course, for blackmail to rise to the level of a felony, it needs to be a somewhat serious offense: a parent threatening to take away television-watching privileges from a child until his or her room is cleaned clearly doesn’t count as criminal blackmail.
That said, there has been a fair amount of confusion about whether or not online blackmail is covered by the same laws and protections as its offline equivalent. In almost all cases, the answer is yes. In fact, there may also be additional laws that provide further recourse to victims, as explained in our article on Internet blackmail laws.
In the United States, extortion and blackmail are different crimes, although they are closely related. Extortion is the use of threat to get something out of the target, either property, money, or some service.
Ransomware is a common example of online extortion, in which the victim’s computer is locked down until a ransom is paid.
Often, attackers will take control of a user’s computer by sending phishing emails. These are misleading emails, disguised as security alerts or other urgent correspondence. Once a victim clicks the links in these emails, a virus is installed on the computer. The hacker then locks out the user or threatens to delete all information on the computer unless a ransom is paid.
Blackmail is the use of threat to force or prevent someone from doing something. Demanding that someone take nude photos to avoid having compromising information released online is an example of Internet blackmail.
As with ransomware, a lot of online blackmail starts with a hacker taking control of the victim’s computer. The attacker then looks for compromising information about the victim and uses it to control the victim’s behavior. Often, hackers demand sexually compromising photography or videos.
In a variation on this attack, instead of searching for preexisting files a blackmailer may simply take control of the victim’s webcam and record compromising videos. He or she then uses these videos to blackmail the victim.
Threats of action
Another common attack is a “threat of action,” which is a form of corporate extortion. First, the blackmailer obtains sensitive information about the target business, often through hacking or phishing scams. This information can range from a client list to proprietary secrets or anything else that would harm the business if made public. The attacker then demands payment to keep the information secret.
Threats of defamation
Threat of defamation is a form of libel. It is a demand for money or other favors to prevent the blackmailer from smearing the victim’s reputation with false statements. For example, a blackmailer might threaten to generate a large number of bad reviews for a business or spread harmful rumors about an individual.
What to do if you receive a blackmail threat
First, go to the police. While the material the blackmailer may have on you is likely to be embarrassing, the actions of the blackmailer are likely even more damaging and embarrassing to your reputation. They may also jeopardize your safety.
The blackmailer will likely claim that the police cannot help you, or that blackmail laws don’t apply to the Internet, or to the blackmailer, as he or she lives in another country. This is false. They are hoping to prey on your ignorance of the law and fear of embarrassment in order to get away with the crime.
Secondly, document any communication the blackmailer has sent you. Take screenshots of emails and chat logs and immediately save them to a USB drive you can remove from your computer. The more information you have, the better; it will assist in constructing a case against the blackmailer.
Third, stop using the computer. Anything you may do on the compromised machine can be used against you. The police will likely want access to the device, so simply power it off and use another device you know to be safe.
Finally, change all of your passwords. If the attacker has copied your passwords, he or she can spread the attack through your social media accounts or other online sources. Locking these down is crucially important.