Cases of webcam ‘sextortion’ rackets on the rise

4 Nov 2010

After a perverted hacker who spied upon more than 200 women via their webcams and microphones after infecting their computers with malware was arrested earlier this year by the FBI, security experts warn the problem isn’t going to go away.

According to Sophos security expert Graham Cluley, the 31-year-old man broke into victims’ personal computers and stole personal information.

Threatening to share the private information with their parents and email contacts, the man pressured the young women (some of them still teenagers) into providing him with risque pictures and videos.

The FBI’s Los Angeles cyber division, who investigated the case, described the case as a chilling example of “sextortion”.

Sextortion racket

According to a report on the FBI’s website, the attacks were spread by the hacker who posed as a young woman on a social networking website.

“In several instances, the hacker posed online as a young woman’s friend or sister and sent messages with attachments asking if the victim wanted to see a scary video,” the FBI report read.

“Because the messages appeared to be from a trusted source, the victims usually didn’t think twice about opening the attachment. When they did, the virus secretly installed itself, and the hacker had total control over their computers – including all files and folders, webcams and microphones.”

Cluley says he has seen many other cases in the past where innocent users’ webcams have been remotely controlled by hackers for sexual kicks.

In early 2005, for instance, Spanish authorities fined a student who took surreptitious movies of unsuspecting users, and arrested a 37-year-old man who spied on victims via a webcam while stealing banking information.

The following year, Adrian Ringland, from the UK town of Ilkeston, Derbyshire, was sentenced to jail for 10 years after admitting posing as a minor on internet chatrooms and using spyware to take explicit photographs via children’s webcams. And in 2008, a 27-year-old Canadian man was charged with using spyware to take over the webcams of women as young as 14 and coercing them into posing naked for him.

“Pretty disgusting stuff I’m sure you’ll agree, and you can imagine how all the victims in these cases must feel utterly violated by what happened to them.

“But, in this latest investigation, there is a way for you to help. The FBI are asking for assistance in finding other victims of the sextortionist.”

Cluley’s blog included a list of screen names and email addresses provided by the FBI that had been used by the hacker in the latest webcam spying case.

“Young people’s PCs must be properly protected with the latest anti-virus software, security patches and firewalls. It is also essential that young people are taught how to behave safely online, to avoid being exploited by sick-minded hackers,” Cluley said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years