A Skype sextortion scam has hit northern England: A woman calling herself Cathy Wong befriended at least three young men on Facebook, got them to contact her via Skype and then convinced them to perform sexual acts for her via webcam. According to North Yorkshire Police, she secretly recorded these acts and later used the clips to blackmail the men.
Wong first claimed her grandmother was ill and asked each man for £3,000 (about $4,500). Each refused, out of principle or penury. Wong then revealed the compromising recordings she'd taken, and threatened to post the videos to YouTube if the men didn't pay.
Wong may not be acting alone. Police say gangs may be involved, and that there may be more victims; they urge anyone else affected by this or similar scams to come forward.
The three young men who came forward are all students, but not acquainted with each other. Police believe the scam may have worldwide reach.
"This scam is causing considerable distress to the victims, and I urge anyone who uses any kind of social networking site to be very wary of what they are getting into," Detective Sergeant Rebecca Dyer said in the general warning issued by North Yorkshire Police.
"I am concerned that there are other victims of this scam who are too embarrassed to come forward about what has happened," Dyer continued. "I urge them to please get in touch with the police. Your information will be dealt with in the strictest confidence and with sensitivity. Please do not suffer in silence."
Victims of sextortion and similar scams often suffer considerable distress, and the crimes are frequently under-reported, as British security software developer Sophos points out on its blog. Some victims even become suicidal, and a Scottish teenager jumped from a bridge in 2013 after being unable to pay Philippines-based sextiortionists. (In the United States, similar scammers often demand additional compromising images — or sometimes actual sexual acts — instead of money.)
Internet users need to be very careful about engaging with strangers online, particularly when sharing explicit photos or videos.
"Watch out for messages from strangers via email or social networking sites and never click on any links in such messages," Sophos' Lee Munson wrote. "Remember, not everyone is who they say they are."
Computer users should also cover webcams when not in use. Some types of malware can secretly activate webcams, thus capturing private or compromising video of the computer's users. Keeping the camera covered with a Post-It note or opaque tape eliminates this risk.
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Jill Scharr is a staff writer for Tom's Guide, where she regularly covers security, 3D printing and video games. You can follow Jill on Twitter @JillScharr and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.