The rise of sextortion: Nude selfies are fun until someone gets blackmailed

Attackers are using online dating services to convince lonely people to send nude photos, and that's when the blackmail begins.

You don't have to be a celebrity to get nailed by a nude photo. According to a report by Trend Micro, sextortion--the use of compromising photos or videos to extract money from victims--is on the rise.

The concept isn't entirely new. Anthony Stancl is currently serving a 15-year prison term for posing as a female on Facebook to lure male students from his high school into sharing sexually compromising photos. He then blackmailed his victims with the threat of making the photos public to force them to perform sexual acts with him.

What sets this campaign of sextortion apart is that it has now been adopted by organized cybercrime organizations and is being used systematically to wreak havoc on lonely, desperate victims online.

According to the Trend Micro report, crime rings are setting up fake Facebook accounts and posing as flirtatious, available women. They invite victims to join a Skype video-chat for cybersex and record the session without the victim's knowledge. The video is then used to blackmail the victim into paying a ransom--typically about $1,000--or risk having the explicit content made public on YouTube.

In some cases the perpetrators pretend there are connection issues and direct the victim to download an app to help troubleshoot the problem. The app is actually malware that gives the attackers access to the victim's PC and enables them to collect information about their contacts. The blackmail then focuses on sending the lewd photos or videos to all of the victim's contacts instead of or in addition to posting it online.

The ring of sextortion scams tracked by Trend Micro is focused in Asia, but there's no reason to believe it won't eventually spread to other regions of the world. Trend Micro claims the sextortion schemes it discovered involve cybercriminals from various nations and cultures working together. Trend Micro notes that attackers are not only evolving technically--developing better tools and processes--but also improving social engineering tactics. The result is attacks that are sophisticated and prey on victims who are most vulnerable.

Don't fall victim to sextortion

Being a victim of sextortion will cost you one way or the other--either your cash or your reputation. And it all starts with someone sending a photo or video to someone else online.

If you wouldn't want something shared with the world, you should think very seriously about sharing it online with even one person. Major social sites like Twitter and Reddit will take down compromising images that are posted without individual consent, but such safeguards remain rare.

It should be obvious not to share compromising material with a random stranger you just met online, or even someone you've communicated with frequently but never met in person. However, even a formerly trusted friend or romantic interest could turn against you. Just think about that before you hit Send.