In a case of life mirroring fiction, a recent insidious email scam bears some striking resemblances to an episode of UK TV show Black Mirror, where a visitor to online porn sites is blackmailed and coerced into undertaking a number of criminal activities to supposedly redeem himself. While the ‘sextortion’ email scam currently plaguing inboxes isn’t quite at the same level, it does prey on people’s fears and insecurities, which scammers hope to turn into ill-gotten reward.

Although the same scam has already done the rounds in Europe, the US and other parts of the globe, reports in New Zealand indicate that thousands of Kiwis have received the email – and the government agency CertNZ has added the scam and its particulars to their recent alerts.

“In the reports CERT NZ’s received, the blackmail emails follow a similar format:

  • the email includes a previous password that you have used
  • the email claims that you visited an adult website and that the scammer turned on your webcam and recorded what was happening
  • the email claims that they have a copy of your website history
  • the scammer threatens to email the video to all your contacts unless they pay a ransom between $1700 and $3,000 NZD.

“The password is one you’ve used in a different online service. The scammer gets it from one of the data leaks that have been posted online, this is called a credentials dump. They are taking advantage of finding this data leak and are trying to pretend they have access to your computer.” (Source: https://www.cert.govt.nz/businesses-and-individuals/recent-threats/webcam-and-password-blackmail-scam/)

“Indeed, scams have been around since human beings first congregated around caves.

Undoubtedly the majority of recipients have either deleted the email or laughed off the rather obvious effort to extort money under false and nefarious pretension, but this ‘sextortion’ scam operates at the same level of all scams – relying on a small amount of people to fork over money when common sense would tell them to stay well clear.

But maybe that’s not overly fair. While most of us can guffaw at the naiveté of those who pay thousands of dollars to supposed US soldiers who need a bit of help to get sacks of gold out of Iraq, or Nigerian scammers looking for anyone to give 27 million dollars to, the reality is that scams are successful not just because some people are ‘a bit dumb’. Indeed, scams have been around since human beings first congregated around caves. Our fears and our desires make us susceptible to things that really are to good to be true. Unfortunately there is a global underground business that preys on that.

There are numerous agencies, websites and forums that try to prevent the unscrupulous efforts of scammers to deceive and extort, but it’s difficult to stop them being successful with the very small percentage of people that throw common sense out of the window. That’s because scammers and spammers rely on that very small percentage. A return of a tenth of a percent is all it takes to garner a solid return on a massive email dump.

“There is perhaps something in human nature that looks to exploit other people for financial gain and a corresponding set of desires and fears that perpetuates it.”

The only sure fire way to prevent being taken for a fool is to not be one. That isn’t intended to sound trite – it means to always be vigilant against anything that appears to good (or bad) to be true. Another important mechanism is research – taking a few minutes to Google the particulars of a potential scam email will doubtless result in screeds of online results spelling out that it is an established and documented fraud.

It’s worth noting that in history scammers have pulled off some outlandish and quite remarkable feats.

Victor Lustig made a fantastic amount of money selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap, while George C Parker in the US maintained a steady income from selling famous landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Madison Square Garden and Grant’s Tomb.

There is perhaps something in human nature that looks to exploit other people for financial gain and a corresponding set of desires and fears that perpetuates it. It’s more a truism than a saying that “there’s a sucker born every minute”.