Beware of blackmail and sextortion emails threatening to expose your personal information

Reports of people receiving emails threatening to expose personal information about them if money isn’t transferred, have spiked in recent weeks.

Several online forums have filled up with reports of a new wave of blackmail emails and our Which? Tech Support helpline has also seen an increase in people calling for advice after receiving one of these emails.

Scammers typically claim they’ve hacked your device and detail your personal information, such as screenshots of websites you’ve visited and your usernames and passwords, threatening to expose your data unless you transfer money to them.

This scam is designed to create fear and some will even claim they have evidence that you’ve visited porn websites. But don’t be alarmed if you’ve received one of these emails. 

Here’s what they typically look like and what you can do if you receive one.

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Sextortion and blackmail emails

A typical sextortion scam email claims a hacker has gained access to the devices you use for internet browsing.

The apparent hacker may tell you they’ve been continuously monitoring your internet activities and have installed a virus onto your devices and therefore can access your webcam, keyboard, microphone as well as other features on your devices.

They may also claim to now have access to your data, photos and all your social media accounts as well as the data that comes with these, such as chat history and your contact list.

To add pressure, you will usually be given a short time period, typically 48 hours, to make a cryptocurrency transfer to them or risk having your personal information exposed.

These emails will often appear to have been sent to you from your own email address, creating the illusion that your email has been hacked.

It’s likely that the scammer has spoofed your email address, this is where the true sender ID is masked by the scammer. Spoofing doesn’t mean your account has been hacked. 

Why is this happening to you?

It’s possible that hackers could have gained access to your information through malware that’s been downloaded onto your computer. This may have happened because you clicked on a dodgy download link.

Once your data has been compromised, screenshots of your browsing history, usernames and passwords can be bought and sold on the dark web, providing scaremongering ‘evidence’ to use in sextortion emails.

However, it’s more likely that this is an opportunist who is hoping to create enough panic to convince you to follow their demands. Don’t be tempted to go along with the scam.

What you should do?

If you receive an email like this, don’t panic, as it’s likely nothing will come of it. However, you should change the passwords quoted in the email and check if any of your other passwords have been compromised using the Pwned Passwords checker.

Ensure your new passwords are secure and use a password manager to organise and securely store your various passwords.

You can also check if your email addresses have been compromised and make sure to cover your webcam for extra security, although it is unlikely that your webcam will be hacked.

Make sure you scan your device for malware – you can check our guides on the best antivirus software for Windows and for Mac.

You should also report email scams by forwarding the email to [email protected]

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