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‘Recovery scams’ targeting sextortion victims are on the rise, experts warn

RCMP report 52,306 complaints in 2020-21, a 510 per cent increase in seven years

A panicked 14-year-old from British Columbia and his family paid $1,500 to a company that claimed it would recover intimate images that were being used to extort him. It didn’t.

Darren Laur, chief training officer at White Hatter, an internet safety and digital literacy education company based in Victoria said the teen’s family reached out to him with their story after the other firm told them there was nothing that could be done.

He said the boy had fallen victim to a growing fraud tactic.

“These companies are popping up all over the place right now. Why? Because sextortion is on a huge increase,” Laur said in an interview. “They’re almost becoming predatory in and of themselves, in my opinion.”

“Sextortion” refers to threats based on a sexual image of a victim, or an image that’s been altered to make it appear sexual.

Many Canadians learned of the risks of sextortion through Amanda Todd, a teenager from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who died by suicide at age 15 in October 2012, a few weeks after posting a video using flash cards to describe being tormented by an online predator.

A Dutch man was convicted in B.C. Supreme Court last year of extortion, harassment and distribution of child pornography in Todd’s case.

“It disgusts me how these rings of offenders (operate). First they’re sextorting people and now they’re trying to get more money out of taking their image down,” Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, said in an interview.

“When you’re in desperate mode, you’ll do anything, so the messaging we need to get it out there is to not fall for it with these companies.”

She said authorities “missed the mark when Amanda died.”

“We thought it was a one-off. No one knew what (sextortion) was, but here we are 10 years later, and it’s an epidemic now with young kids.”

The RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre said it received a total of 52,306 complaints about the crime for the year 2020-21, marking a 510 per cent increase from seven years earlier.

The Winnipeg-based Centre for Child Protection runs Cybertip, Canada’s tip line for reporting online child sexual abuse. It has reported receiving “an unprecedented volume of reports from youth, and sometimes their concerned parents, about falling prey to aggressive sextortion tactics,” amounting to about 300 online sextortion cases a month.

Cybertip is now warning about sextortion recovery scams, wherefraudsters target the same people who were victims of the extortion scam, claiming they will be able to recover intimate images for a fee.

It said reports shared by victims online reveal that these individuals and groups, sometimes referred to as “recovery scammers,” often self-advertise as hackers, cybersecurity or reputation management firms.

“Oftentimes, in an environment where (people are) highly desperate, they’re more vulnerable to paying that money, or reaching out and trying to figure out a way to resolve the situation as quickly as possible,”Catherine Tabak, the tip line’s program manager, said in an interview.

“It just creates a sort of additional layer of vulnerability for them when they’ve been victimized by sextortion.”

She notes that this type of scam is not new, but echoed that it has increased alongside the boom in sextortion.

“We really wanted to put the word out there to kind of get ahead of the game because we were seeing an increase in calls and victims coming forward indicating that they had contacted these companies, or that they’ve been in touch with someone that was presenting themselves as being a hacker that could help them out.”

B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma tabled legislation Monday that would provide additional protections for people whose intimate images are shared without permission.

While publication of intimate images without consent is already an offence under the Criminal Code, Sharma said the bill would create new legal rights and remedies people could use to stop distribution of the images and seek compensation for the harms caused.

Laur, who is also retired Victoria police sergeant, said the bill didn’t come as a surprise because the government consulted him and other stakeholders about it.

“This piece of legislation is, in my opinion, groundbreaking,” he said in an interview. “Is it going to solve the issue? No. Is it another tool in the tool box for survivors? Absolutely.”

He said it may have a “small deterrent effect,” but he expects sextortionists and recovery scammers to continue to profit.

“It won’t necessarily prevent it from happening. If the Criminal Code stopped everything, we wouldn’t need police officers anymore,” he said. “The bigger benefit to this is that it holds the offender accountable for what they’ve done.”

The new laws are more likely to help people whose intimate images have been shared by someone they know, which happens more often to females targeted by previous partners, he said.

Calgary Police Service Det. Steve Brighton, who works for the Southern Alberta Internet Child Exploitation Unit, said police are also concerned about the rise of sextortion recovery scams.

“I haven’t seen it in Alberta yet, but I know the U.S. has seen it and we know about it occurring in the U.S., and that’s just another way for these offenders to make money,” he said.

He added that he believes sextortion is a vastly under-reported crime.

“It’s a huge worldwide problem now, and I don’t think I don’t even think we’ve touched the surface in identifying the victims.”

—Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

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