St. Johns County deputies warn of extortion scam

Warning comes after FBI reported increase in extortion scams amid coronavirus pandemic

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office is warning people about a scam in which a con artist threatens to publicly reveal explicit videos of victims if they don’t pay a ransom.

News4Jax first reported on this scam last week when the FBI issued a warning about a rise in extortion scams amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the Sheriff’s Office said the people who have complained about the hoax did not give in to the scammer’s demands, computer expert Chris Hamer said the scammer is doing this because they’ve had success at this before.

“The people who will fall victim to it are the people who are unsure, have done the things they have been accused of and are very much afraid of it getting out, so those are not the people who will call the Sheriff’s Office and ask if it’s a scam," Hamer told News4Jax via Skype on Monday.

Investigators said the scammer will send an email explaining how they hacked into that person’s cellphone camera or computer camera and secretly recorded them. Then, according to investigators, the scammer threatens to post the footage on social media if the victim doesn’t send several thousands of dollars in bitcoin.

“It’s a bluff. Nowadays, most people’s computers and even phones are not visible on the internet from the outside. They’re behind firewalls, either through your cellphone provider or if you have one of the major local providers," Hamer said.

Hamer said whoever is behind this scam is only able to contact a potential victim through email by way of usernames and passwords to previous accounts.

“These are usernames, passwords and contact information that they purchased from a data dump," Hamer said.

Hamer said this happens when websites get hacked and a site’s entire user directory is downloaded by people who sell the information to anyone willing to purchase it. Once a scam artist purchases the information, Hamer explained, it becomes easier to email a potential victim and say: “We know everything about you and here’s your password to prove it.”

Hamer said it’s all part of a large underground industry to rip you off, and the scammer is asking you to send thousands of dollars’ worth of bitcoin because cryptocurrency leaves no paper trail, making it that much harder to be caught by local law enforcement.

“One of its hallmarks is not necessarily the anonymity of the transaction, but the anonymity of the owner of the wallet. Bitcoin can traverse international boundaries without government purview, avoid taxes and financial institutions and can only be converted into cash at the receiving end," Hamer said.

Bitcoin can also be used to purchase just about any and everything on the darknet.

Hamer said the only way the scammer can have access to your web camera is if you download a website or software that has already been compromised by hackers. He said if you don’t feel safe about your webcam embedded into your laptop, you can always place a strip of tape over the camera.

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