PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Artificial intelligence is already revolutionizing society – from healthcare and education to cybersecurity and even our courts. Despite all of its benefits, it has also given criminals an edge when it comes to deceiving us. 

Financial sextortion is a crime in which a bad actor attempts to leverage personal material (think: naked pictures or videos) to force a victim into giving into their demands — usually money or other compromising material. 

These crimes have grown in scope to regularly target minors. New advances in technology have also allowed the crimes to evolve from stealing explicit or personal media directly from victims to using their likeness to create entirely fictitious images, video or audio recordings. 

“Traditionally, when we saw business email compromises, someone would send you an email saying ‘please wire me money for this owed debt,’” said FBI Norfolk Assistant Special Agent In Charge Jason Bilnoski. “Combine that now with deep fake technology, that email could then be followed up with a phone call purporting to be someone that you know.” 

Traditional Financial Sextortion 

Often, male victims are baited into these scams on social media when a fictitious (usually female) account pretending to be romantically interested in them initiates conversation. Eventually the back and forth escalates to a request to exchange revealing or sexual images or videos. 

“After that exchange happens, what they thought was a female then tells them that they have recorded or saved the images, and if they don’t pay them a certain amount of money, they’ll send it out to their family or co-workers,” said VBPD Detective Preston Vaughan of the typical cases he’s handled. 

According to the FBI, more than 40,000 people were victimized by such crimes last year. The actual number, they tell us, is likely much larger, as many people choose not to report out of shame or embarrassment. 

The 10 On Your Side investigative team has come across numerous so-called “sextortion” cases in local court documents this year – primarily in Virginia Beach. Some of those victims spent thousands of dollars in order to not be exposed, something that Vaughan strongly cautions against. 

“The safest answer is you don’t give any money,” he said when asked how people should respond if contacted by a scammer. “First of all, if you were to give money, chances are they’re going to keep asking and keep asking — and we’ve even seen it where it evolves into now, [the scammer’s] friend is now extorting you for money as well, and it just keeps ballooning out.” 

The cases 10 On Your Side’s investigative team found illustrate a variety of methods used by scammers. 

In one instance, a local man had been in what he thought was a long-distance relationship with a woman for years, going back to 2016. He regularly sent her money through gift cards and the two exchanged nude photos. 

When he tried to cut things off at the beginning of this year, telling her he had developed feelings for another woman, the person responded by threatening to release the photos he had sent if he didn’t pay $500. 

The man initially deleted WhatsApp, the mobile application they’d used to communicate, and ignored the threats. About a month later, his Gmail account began receiving messages from the scammer. 

“So you think I don’t have the pictures anymore?” one read. “If you don’t comply with me I swear I’ll f*** up your life an(d) career and nobody will stop me.” 

In another case, a local man had believed he was communicating with a young woman over the age of 18. After exchanging personal photos, he was contacted by a scammer posing as the woman’s father, who told him that she was actually a minor and had tried to take her own life shortly after sending him photos.  

The man was told he needed to pay for her medical bills and for a new laptop, or the scammer would contact police and he’d have to face a child pornography charge. That victim ended up paying out more than $3,000. 

The man spoke to police after attempting to take his own life, according to court documents. 

“I have seen a wide variety of conclusions to these cases,” Vaughan said. “People have paid thousands upon thousands of dollars; people have not paid; people have ignored it and it’s gone away; and people have ignored it and the picture gets sent out to everybody that they know.” 

Enter AI

Vaughan told us that the number of financial sextortion cases he’s seen has remained relatively stable over the years. What has changed in the landscape, however, is that bad actors have access to new technologies that allow them to create artificial images using publicly available photos or videos. 

“With deep fake technology and artificial intelligence, they can take a small sample — whether it’s your voice, or in this case a photograph or video — convert it into something that is not real, [and] use it against you,” Bilnoski said. 

“It is not that complicated to use,” he added. “With some quick searches, and sometimes use of places on the dark web, they can quickly find tools that will help them advance their criminal activity.” 

So, even if you’ve never taken or sent the kind of photo that scammers could leverage against you, they can take what you post on social media to create those kinds of pictures. 

“Whether or not the images are real, they look real and that can be very traumatizing to these victims, especially when we’re dealing with juveniles,” Bilnoski said. 

That’s why, he said, it’s so important to be cognizant about what you’re posting online and to make sure you know what your kids are doing on social media. 

How to fight back  

Vaughan said that of all the online extortion cases he’s seen, only two had suspects that were in the United States. 

“The majority of the time, we run the search warrants to figure out where it’s coming from, they’re coming back to places like Morocco, Nigeria, overseas countries,” he said. “For me at a state level, once it gets outside of the United States, I can’t do anything about it. That would in turn have to be a federal agency.” 

That’s where the FBI comes in.

Bilnoski told us that his office works with agencies and departments at all levels to go after these criminals. Unlike local police departments, the bureau is tasked with investigating crimes outside of the borders of the United States. 

“In addition to our offices around the U.S., we have offices around the world,” he said. “So we work with not only our local, state and federal partners, but we work with our international partners to make sure that we locate, we find and hold these actors accountable.” 

“Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, et cetera — they all work with us on a daily basis to make sure we combine our efforts to go after [them],” he added. 

The growth in minor victims has added a level of complexity and gravity to the problem. Scammers targeting children can face not only extortion and wire fraud charges, but child pornography and exploitation charges as well. 

Bilnoski thinks the pandemic made the situation for minors worse, as virtually all of them spent more time in online spaces beginning with the lockdown in March 2020. 

Vaughan told us his office handles both minor and adult cases. 

“The mechanics of how the investigation flows is the same,” he said. “But we will spend a little more time with the juvenile making sure that they’re aware that this is not something that they can’t get over and get past — and to make sure that they know we’re here and we have lots of resources for them as well.   

He says kids are especially vulnerable to these scams because their brains aren’t as developed and able to judge the risk of taking and sending personal images and video. 

“We typically tell parents that they’ve got to be on top of all the social medias,” Vaughan said. “And there’s a fine balance because you want to give your kid that freedom, you want to let them grow up on their own — you don’t want to be too overbearing. But at the same time, very quickly, a simple mistake can turn into having lasting effects on the juvenile.” 

A full list of FBI recommendations to protect yourself and your kids is available at the end of this story. 

With all victims of these crimes, there’s an element of shame. These scammers are exploiting material that is meant to humiliate them, so reaching out for help can seem almost counterintuitive. 

“They’re scared and they’re embarrassed. They’re traumatized,” Bilnoski said. “Its so important that the public understands that victims need to come forward. You will be treated with respect and dignity and that we will move to hold these actors accountable.” 

There are a number of resources available to people who’ve been victimized by crimes like these to fight back.  

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children operates a service that will find and remove sexually explicit photos from the internet. There’s also StopNCII.org, which provides a similar service for people over the age of 18. The FBI also encourages you to file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). 

“Criminals will keep perpetrating these crimes as long as we keep paying, right,” Bilnoski said. “So it’s important for the public to understand if you fall victim to one of these scams or one of these types of crimes to reach out to law enforcement so we can do something about it.” 

Full list of FBI recommendations 

  • Monitor children’s online activity and discuss risks associated with sharing personal content. 
  • Use discretion when posting images, videos and personal content online, particularly those that include children or their information. 
  • Images, videos, or personal information posted online can be captured, manipulated, and distributed by malicious actors without your knowledge or consent. 
  • Once content is shared on the internet, it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove once it is circulated or posted by other parties. 
  • Run frequent online searches of you and your children’s information (e.g., full name, address, phone number, etc.) to help identify the exposure and spread of personal information on the internet. 
  • Apply privacy settings on social media accounts—including setting profiles and your friends lists as private—to limit the public exposure of your photos, videos, and other personal information. 
  • Consider using reverse image search engines to locate any photos or videos that have circulated on the internet without your knowledge. 
  • Exercise caution when accepting friend requests, communicating, engaging in video conversations, or sending images to individuals you do not know personally. Be especially wary of individuals who immediately ask or pressure you to provide them. Those items could be screen-captured, recorded, manipulated, shared without your knowledge or consent, and used to exploit you or someone you know. 
  • Do not provide any unknown or unfamiliar individuals with money or other items of value. Complying with malicious actors does not guarantee your sensitive photos or content will not be shared. 
  • Use discretion when interacting with known individuals online who appear to be acting outside their normal pattern of behavior. Hacked social media accounts can easily be manipulated by malicious actors to gain trust from friends or contacts to further criminal schemes or activity. 
  • Secure social media and other online accounts using complex passwords or passphrases and multi-factor authentication. 
  • Research the privacy, data sharing and data retention policies of social media platforms, apps and websites before uploading and sharing images, videos or other personal content.