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An email scam claims to have compromising pictures. How to spot their bluff and enjoy your porn in peace

This month, A Beautiful Perspective is exploring touch in all its forms and contexts. Click here to read more stories from the TOUCH Issue.

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Hi there! You see porno web site and masturbate at that time your gadget was injected. At the moment I had all necessary damaging information and contact numbers of all your closely related people. Yours web cam was turned on with a help of the application and filmed and takes snapshots.

The threats, coiled like a cobra in her inbox, felt invasive, violating. They came, two within a couple hours of each other, to K.A.’s personal email, and after the initial revulsion she quickly realized they were likely empty threats. That’s when her mindset shifted from attacked to incensed.

“When I read it, then I became angry,” K.A., a resident of Indiana, said in a phone interview. “Because in my case, it just simply isn’t true. I haven’t done that.”

Still, a soupcon of danger remained. K.A.’s husband and son have access to her devices; perhaps they had contracted the malware her extortionists referenced? With growing concern, she took a harder look at the language of the email—its car-crash syntax, the cancerous proliferation of unnecessary conjunctions and prepositions—and decided that neither she nor her family had let the blackmailers in.

“I could tell they were both from foreigners,” K.A. said. And while the extortionists claimed a cache of embarrassing photos and videos of her masturbating, they did not attach a single example to show the severity of the threat.

Confident it was a scam, she reported the emails to the FBI and the Better Business Bureau (BBB). She was far from the first—or the last.

All access to yours social networking websites accounts are in my hands. In a case if you do not like me to deliver all dirty pictures (while you have been tugging out) to your loved ones and collaborates, then you shoud send $ 400 to my Bitcoin address 12G2TuKXouk8DNUSRZCBFLyeCKcfweQ3Lp. All closely related people and collaborates obtain dirty pictures in a case if I do not obtain remittance within twentyfour hours. If you going to fulfill all the terms I should liquidate all this files.

Extortion attempts involving porn and sex are on the rise. The Internet Crime Complaint Center of the FBI issued a warning this past August, with the BBB following suit in September. I’ve received two of these emails myself. Both were easily dismissed as false because, aside from the obvious grammatical errors, my webcam is always covered, making the threat of photos and video empty prima facie.

A search of the BBB’s Scam Tracker for the parameters “porn” and “phishing” show 67 reported scams from February 2015 to this past October, a number that surely represents a fraction of the actual attempts. Due to the sensitive nature of the threats and people’s tendency to delete them, the true number of targets is unknown.

“Frankly, staving off embarrassment isn’t worth much more than probably $20-40 to me.”

The widespread patronage of porn websites makes them a “target rich environment for sextortionists,” said private security expert Chuck Andrews, and a particularly intimate venue for extortion, compared to spoof emails or Nigerian financial fraud.

“Sextortion, that’s the worst of it,” Andrews said. “Now you’re including elements of the personal and emotional. Those are deeply rooted in the soul and brain as a human being.”

Particularly rooted in shame is masturbation. The extortionists take advantage of a deeply ingrained association among most cultures of masturbation with inadequacy; a kind of “second tier” sex which implies insatiability, lack of control or an inability to find a partner. Blasting those mid-masturbation photos out to your family, friends and coworkers? Mortifying.

Still, not every target is susceptible to this particular pressure.

Ryan, a filmmaker from Chicago, found the threats both not credible and not worth the ransom anyway. “It still wouldn’t be worth $1,000 to me to prevent these supposedly compromising images from being put out,” he told A Beautiful Perspective by text message. “Frankly, staving off embarrassment isn’t worth much more than probably $20-40 to me.”

All of the emails reviewed by or detailed to A Beautiful Perspective via victims, BBB Scam Tracker reports and personal experience have similar taxonomic features. The syntax is brimming with idiosyncratic creations found only in scam emails (black PR images, likely a stab at “blackmail,” is a personal favorite), and they threaten to out porn habits or release compromising photos and videos to your work, personal and social media contacts. Some even claim proof of child pornography, with a threat to go to the FBI if their demands—a ransom, usually asked to be paid in bitcoin—are not met.

“Right now, it’s not having a great impact, because people are generally reading the emails and seeing the syntax and the vernacular used, and not impressed by the language used,” says Don Aviv, president of private investigative and corporate intelligence firm Interfor International. But, Aviv says, there will be a tremendous increase in both the number of attacks and their sophistication. As the content of them becomes more believable—the English more correct—the inclusion of the real passwords bought or found online will only increase their credibility.

Security expert Don Aviv says he knows for a fact some people have paid the sextortionists' ransom. Annie Spratt via Unsplash

You have to remember that the main thing in this time are family values and it shall be a good lesson from now on. If you do not do that stupid things there was no such situation. Be meticulous about for the future Sincere regards. P.S. After opening this letter you have only 24 hours.

Convicting criminals in an international crime—Romania seems to be the hot zone of the porn-threat pandemic, though the FBI declined to comment—and especially a digital one is notoriously difficult. The lack of a centralized database and low number of reported attempts make investigations difficult. Time, technological know-how, and the skills to track cybercrime can be in short supply as well, especially for smaller police departments.

“You need better statistics, better analysis, better tracking tools, and you have to study it and realize what kind of emails are being used,” Aviv says. Despite the low odds, Andrews and Aviv both encourage people to report the scams, as their information may help to eventually break the ring or crack other cases.

Under no circumstances, the experts say, should you pay the ransom. The extortionists will simply continue asking for more money, any capitulation in essence encouraging the squeeze.

“None of the consumers who have reported this scam to BBB Scam Tracker said that they actually fell for it and lost money. The latest twists we’ve seen—mentioning child pornography specifically and threatening to report the target to the FBI—raises the stakes if the more generic threat wasn’t working,” Katherine Hutt, a national spokesperson for the BBB, wrote in an emailed statement.

“In our experience, victims of this scam are less likely to report it than victims of other kinds of scams. It may be that someone who did pay up feared the scammer knew something that they also knew to be true, or they might have been afraid of being framed and paid them off just to be safe.”

It only takes a small percentage of people being strong-armed for the sextortionists to make money, and Aviv knows for a fact that some victims have paid.

“People need to be as aware and vigilant as walking in a Christmas parking lot at night,” Andrews says, wary as a shopper looking for muggers.

“It still feels …,” K.A. trails off. “We still have a soft sense of privacy with our email addresses. It still does feel invasive when you get an email from someone you don’t know who’s threatening you.”

The security experts say the only way to ensure porn sites do not really infect your computer is to not visit them, advice which traffic numbers suggest few will take. Peace of mind is just a Post-It note away, however. Cover up that camera, and practice a little safer solo sex.