FBI warns of increase in extortion scams amid pandemic

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center reports an uptick in online extortion scams during the stay-at-home orders issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

With more people staying at home and likely using their phone, computer or tablet, con artists are using this opportunity to their advantage in hopes of getting money from you. I know this because I was targeted.

According to the FBI, there are many different variations of online extortion schemes, but there are commonalities to the schemes.

For example, the email that I received was from an unknown party. For me, what was most alarming was the subject: a passcode that I used for several sites, including my current bank account.

“Say there’s some website out there that you logged into years ago and you used that password. It could be anything. It could be an obscure kind of website where your username was your email account and that you entered your password after that. There might have been a breach of this database, especially if it was a smaller, lesser secured internet site,” Windness said.

That’s why it’s important to have different passwords for different accounts. Windness said a hacker only needs two pieces of information in an attempt to scam you: an email address and a passcode.

“They then have to craft a story to extort money and that’s where that story comes from that you’re hearing where they usually say they have compromising videos or photos and they try to get you to pay up and the way they have legitimacy to their claim is they have a password you used at one point in the past,” Windness said. “They are going to prey off people’s emotions as much as possible, especially if you have people who are locked down right now and have too much time to think about it.”

Other hallmarks to look out for: broken English, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, a payment request in the form of a worldwide currency and a window to pay up.

“Don’t respond to the email. If you respond to it, then they know you received it. They are sending this email to you. The account might be years old, and for all they know, you don’t even use that account," Windness said. "If you don’t respond, that might be exactly what they think and that email went to nowhere.”

Next, report the scam to www.ic3.gov. That’s what the FBI uses to track scams, create cases and go after the responsible parties.

Windness said the email itself is not compromising, but be mindful of links and attachments that could be.

“I would generally say go ahead and delete it -- say goodbye to it,” Windness said.

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