In 2011, naked photos of Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson made their way onto the Web. The photos, which Johansson had taken herself with her smartphone, were posted on a variety of different sites, and then went viral.
Such things happened to a whole host of celebrities, including Christina Aguilera, Ali Larter, Miley Cyrus, Jessica Alba, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. No doubt, they had something to worry about — but as it turns out, so do normal people.
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It's a process called "sextortion," and it's exactly what it sounds like: sexual extortion. It all begins when someone gets their hands on a racy photo of you. It could be that your phone got stolen, or that an ex-boyfriend decided sharing those nude pictures was a fun way to get over you, or that someone broke into your home computer and programmed the webcam to take photos of you without your knowledge.
"I just could not believe that this was actually happening to me," said M, a sextortion victim who wished not to be identified by his full name, "I thought it was a prank, but it wasn't."
It seems like a nightmare scenario, but it happens to real people. Luis Mijangos of Santa Ana, Calif., was sentenced to six years in prison in 2011 for hacking into the computers of more than 100 women and teenage girls. If he found nude photos, Mijangos would contact the women and threaten to post the images online unless they provided more naked photos.
A Florida man is currently serving a five-year sentence after his conviction for doing the same to at least 19 women, and a California man is serving four years after he admitted using Facebook to take over women's email accounts and blackmail them.
Men are not exempt from becoming victims of the disturbing trend. In 2008, several male students at Eisenhower High School in New Berlin, Wis., were tricked into sending naked photos of themselves via instant messaging by a classmate, which he then used to sextort at least 31 of them, as well as forcing several to have sex with him. That scheme sent him to prison for 15 years.
"I was almost relieved when I found out that it wasn’t my fault," said M of his own case, though the expression on his face was less than relieved. "My boyfriend at the time got a virus on his Droid from an app he downloaded, and that is how my [lewd] shots got out."
Even though M’s boyfriend claimed innocence at the time, it still ended their relationship.
"I thought he had posted them online," said M. "They were only for him. I kept thinking if he would do that to me and then lie, how could I trust him about anything else?"
So how do you protect yourself from sextortion? Well, there are a lot of little things you can do.
Keep your pictures PG-rated
First and foremost, do not text, email or post online explicit photos of yourself. Remember that once you put an image out there, you lose control of it, even if that image is hidden behind a password lock.
“We tend to think of our email accounts as our own private space,” M said. “But if a company owns that space, you’ll never know how secure they really are. If I send my boyfriend a shot of me while he’s away, it can go anywhere. That can ruin relationships and careers, believe me. It’s not worth taking the photo. Pick up a phone … Your new boyfriend will appreciate it when he doesn’t have to explain to all his friends why they can see you naked online.”
Update your anti-virus software
A good piece of anti-virus software can help to keep you safer from a variety of different types of attacks, including sextortion, but if you do not update it regularly, it won’t be effective. Make an update a part of your weekly routine. Better yet, allow your anti-virus software to auto-update itself, and you will never have to think about it again.
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Unplug or disable your Webcam when you’re not using it
Many sextortion victims didn’t mean to take, or share naked images of themselves. To keep from being filmed while you are changing clothes, be sure to unplug or disable your webcam when you're not using it. This will keep you safe from prying electronic eyes. If you have a system with a built-in camera, then a small piece of electrical tape should be able to cover the lens without damaging it.
Use your common sense
This one may sound obvious, but one brazen series of attacks was perpetrated by a man who convinced women that they needed to bring their laptops near steam to clear out a sensor. Predictably, the women took the machines into the bathroom during their next shower, and the man was able to watch them bathe.
Have the common sense to double-check dubious instructions with a second source — it can save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
If you believe you have been the victim of sextortion, file a report at http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx. This cybercrime task force is a joint undertaking between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. To be on the safe side, file the report using a computer that you are certain has not been breached, such as the ones at your local library or school.