In June 2022, INTERPOL launched a public awareness campaign warning Internet users of a dramatic increase in digital extortion threats.
Under the banner #YouMayBeNext and supported by 75 INTERPOL member countries and 21 public or private entities, the campaign focused particularly on sextortion, ransomware and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.
In a vivid example of the threat these attacks represent, international police action supported by INTERPOL has uncovered and dismantled a transnational sextortion ring that managed to extract at least $47,000 from victims. So far, the investigation has traced 34 cases back to the syndicate.
The cybercriminals contacted their victims, based mainly in Hong Kong (China) and Singapore, through online sex and dating platforms before asking them to download a malicious mobile application via a hyperlink to engage in ‘naked chats’.
Little did the victims know that this app was specifically designed to steal their phones’ contact lists. The syndicate would then blackmail victims by threatening to circulate their nude videos to their relatives and friends.
Thanks to reports from victims, law enforcement soon began to zero in on the perpetrators, establishing a joint investigation between INTERPOL’s cybercrime division and police forces in Hong Kong (China) and Singapore.
”We conducted a proactive investigation and in-depth analysis of a zombie command and control server hosting the malicious application, which – along with the joint efforts by our counterparts – allowed us to identify and locate individuals linked to the criminal syndicate,” said Raymond Lam Cheuk Ho, Acting Head of the Hong Kong Police’s Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau.
In July and August, 12 suspected core members of the sextortion ring were arrested.
“I am convinced that no single police agency would have been able to achieve this result alone,” Mr Lam said. “The international police collaboration through INTERPOL was absolutely crucial.”
“Having a criminal access the most intimate aspects of your life and using this information against you to extort enormous sums of cash is anyone’s nightmare – and the most frightening part is that anyone could fall victim to this type of crime,” said Stephen Kavanagh, INTERPOL’s Executive Director of Police Services.
“Sextortionists sometimes count on their victims feeling too much shame to go to the police, but reporting these crimes is often the first step to bringing these criminals to justice,” Mr Kavanagh added.
Sharp rise in sextortion
Sextortion is when criminals coerce or trick their victims into sharing explicit images or videos, which are subsequently used for blackmail. A sharp rise in sextortion reports has been observed around the world in recent years, mirroring a rise in other types of cybercrime that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
INTERPOL’s awareness campaigns on cyber threats have emphasized that just one click – on an unverified link or to send an intimate photo or video to someone – can suffice to fall victim to cybercrime.
The campaigns recommend that victims of sextortion or other cybercrimes observe the following steps:
- Cease all contact with the suspected cyber criminals
- Do not pay or provide further images or information to the suspected cyber criminals
- Keep or assemble any evidence of the crime
- Report the crime to police
The countries involved in the operation were China and Singapore.