Groton, Connecticut - The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is warning Sailors not to engage in sexually explicit activities online in response to a recent increase in reports of sexual extortion, or "sextortion," aboard Naval Submarine Base New London.
Sextortion is a cybercrime perpetuated against unwitting victims who are approached in casual conversation and then seduced into engaging in online sexual activities. After fulfilling the sexual requests, which are recorded without the victim's knowledge or consent, the victim is threatened with public exposure and embarrassment if he or she does not pay a specified sum of money to the perpetrator, usually through a wire transfer.
"It is a growing problem," says local NCIS Special Agent Ryan Colwell, who specializes in sexual crime related investigations.
"We have seen multiple instances of Sailors here being victimized in the past six months alone."
Since August 2012, perpetrators have targeted at least 160 service members across the country, with more than 50 confirmed incidents of sextortion resulting in a cumulative loss of more than $45,000.
NCIS encourages Sailors to be cognizant of how they advertise themselves and whom they engage with online to avoid being lured into a compromising situation.
"Typically, the criminals involved will request a wire transfer via Western Union to their accounts anywhere from $500 to $1,500," said Special Agent Colwell.
"Unfortunately most of these wire transfers are going to international accounts in the Philippines and it is difficult for American authorities to prosecute the perpetrators because they are in a foreign country. Filipino authorities generally do not seek prosecution in these cases because they require victims to file formal complaints in person."
Because NCIS is unable to recoup financial loss in most sextortion cases, the best defense is to be vigilant about protecting personal information and to refrain from engaging in sexually explicit activities online, including posting or exchanging compromising photos or videos.
"Noticing the signs of these perpetrators can actually be quite easy," explains Special Agent Colwell. "You will see a friend request from someone you have never met and their profile will be very haphazardly arranged with very little identifying information, few posts, and online friends consisting of primarily of service members. We have seen cases where the victim saw that the perpetrator was mutual friends with their former submarine school classmates or boot camp classmates and decided to accept their friend request. Criminals use friend networks to their advantage and send requests to everyone in a community to establish legitimacy, increase their odds of being accepted, and widen their pool of potential victims. It is imperative to be on your guard and immediately delete these types of friend requests or other social media inquiries."
As Sailors become more aware of the dangers of the Internet, perpetrators are adapting to create a more legitimate-looking profile and are employing new methods to encourage victim compliance and circumvent law enforcement efforts.
When asked about how the online threat has evolved, Special Agent Colwell said perpetrators have begun approaching service members via online dating websites like PlentyOfFish or MeetMe, which require users to agree to a disclaimer stating he or she is at least 18 years of age. Shortly thereafter, the Sailor and unknown person exchange cell phone numbers and continue communication through text messaging - all leading to the exchange of sexually explicit photos.
In many cases, the Sailor will receive phone calls or text messages from a male identifying himself as the "father" of the unknown person who claims he or she has been corresponding with an underage minor. The "father" then demands a large sum of money for not pursuing criminal charges, usually via MoneyGram, Western Union, Rush Card, or similar money transfer services. Sailors have also reported being contacted by an individual claiming to be a law enforcement official who encourages the Sailor to pay the monetary demand.
Sailors should be suspicious if any of the following occur:
- The perpetrator uses poor grammar and sentence structure when exchanging messages.
- After initiating contact, communications quickly turn sexual in nature and the person encourages you to engage in explicit video chat or exchange explicit images.
- A video call begins with the person in a state of undress or engaging in a sexual act.
- You receive communications from "law enforcement personnel" via text message, email, or phone. Law enforcement officials will always notify you in person of your involvement in suspected criminal activity.
To avoid falling victim to sextortion:
- Refrain from engaging in sexually explicit activities online, such as posting or exchanging compromising photos/videos.
- Adjust privacy settings of social media profiles and accounts to limit publicly available information to unknown persons.
- Exercise caution when accepting friend requests or communicating with unknown persons online.
- Avoid advertising or discussing U.S. military and/or U.S. government affiliations.
- Trust your instincts - if you have any suspicions, cease contact.
- Turn off electronic devices and cover webcams when not in use.
- Update antivirus software and avoid downloading apps, files, or email attachments from unverified sources.
- Safeguard your personal banking and credit card information from unknown recipients.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sextortion, contact NCIS Resident Agency New London at (860) 694-4686. NCIS has resources and literature available to help navigate the damages caused by this crime.