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Threats and extortion scams – how they work and how to stay safe from online blackmail

Security specialist

2024-04-03 00:00

Estimated reading time
5 min

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Unless you’re watching an action-thriller, you might not spend much time thinking about how you would respond if you were threatened by a criminal. But as our lives move deeper online, we become more vulnerable to attacks from scammers using these methods to take advantage of our trust or capitalise on our fear. 

Cyber extortion is a common tactic used by scammers to blackmail you into doing their bidding, often involving attempts to gain access to your banking information or threats of harm if you refuse to pay them large sums of money. These scams are most often delivered via phone or email, and according to the National Anti-Scam Centre’s Scamwatch, phone calls were the method responsible for the biggest losses in this category in 2023.

The emotional effects of these types of scams can be long lasting, and since anyone can be a target of cyber extortion, it’s important to know the warning signs, and how to proceed if you do encounter a scammer. 

What are threat and extortion scams?

These scams are particularly scary because they involve direct threats to your safety, livelihood, or reputation. Many cyber extortion scams take place over the phone, where the criminal will call with a threat of arrest or deportation. Other extortion scams may come through email, threatening to expose nude photographs or videos (also known as sextortion scams) unless you immediately transfer money or cryptocurrency.

Common examples of threats and extortion scams

  • Threats from a government official: A criminal impersonates a government official who threatens you with arrest, deportation or imprisonment for unpaid tax bills or a problem with your visa.

  • Threats of reputation damage: A scammer will claim to have remote access to your computer or impersonate someone you know, like a romantic interest or close friend. They will contact you with the threat of releasing personal photos or videos that would harm your reputation.

  • Threats of violence: You receive a phone call or message that threatens you with bodily harm if you do not immediately follow their instructions. 

5 cyber extortion red flags

  1. Automated calls with a recorded voice informing you they are contacting you from a government agency.

  2. Getting a call out of the blue from an ‘official’ who is aggressive or threatening.

  3. Messages from someone you don’t know claiming to have compromising information about you, or images of you.

  4. Someone sending you an email with a password you used in the past (or one you currently use), as proof they can access your accounts.

  5. There are short deadlines for you to transfer funds or buy cryptocurrency to send to the criminal.

How can you protect yourself from threats and extortion scams?

The best way to avoid being caught up in criminal extortion scams is to know how to steer clear of them in the first place. And since that may not always be possible, these tips may help you protect yourself before you’re in too deep.

  • Don’t open any links that are sent to you by an extortionist. For example, they might ask you to click a link to see the sensitive information or images they have on you.

  • If you feel panicked or threatened, go to a nearby police station and ask for assistance, do not comply with the scammer’s demands.

  • Ignore all contact from anyone threatening or attempting to extort you. Simply hang up on the caller immediately, or do not respond to messages – contact the authorities and report the crime instead.

  • If you receive unusual or alarming contact from someone claiming to be from a well-known organisation, verify their identity by contacting the organisation directly on a trusted number.

  • If the scammer sends you their photo, do a reverse image search to see if it comes up in association with any other scams or stories online.

  • Update your security settings on social media to private.

  • If you are unsure if an email or SMS is a scam, type a few lines of the text into a search engine and see if the results link it with a common scam message being sent out widely.

  • Have discussions with family members, especially children and elderly relatives, about the warning signs of cyber extortion and explain what they should do if they are contacted. 

What can you do if you’re being threatened or extorted?

If you’re being targeted by cyber extortion, the best thing is not to engage. Hang up or ignore the email or text message, and if you feel overwhelmed, talk to someone you trust to help you think clearly and offer moral support.

Next steps include:

  • Documenting as much of the interaction as you can for the authorities - You can take screenshots of messages or call logs, collect information about the blackmailer, and information about the interactions – when they contacted you and how.

  • Contacting your bank immediately to prevent any funds from being taken from your accounts. If you’re an ANZ customer, please contact us immediately.

  • Change your passwords on your personal banking accounts and any other system you think might be compromised.

  • If you shared credit card details, block or cancel those cards immediately. If your cards are with ANZ, you can do this through the app. Learn more.

Who can you talk to if you’re being threatened or extorted?

  • Report the scam to the Police through the Australian Signals Directorate’s ReportCyber portal. This resource is there for reports of scams where money or personal information has been lost.

  • Contact the Australian cyber security hotline which is contactable 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 1300 CYBER1 (or 1300 292 371).

  • Report the cyber abuse incident to the eSafety Commissioner.

  • You can also contact IDCare, a not-for-profit organisation providing support to those experiencing identity and cyber security concerns.

  • Help others by reporting to Scamwatch to help them prevent future losses, monitor trends and educate the population about emerging threats.
Threats and extortion scams – how they work and how to stay safe from online blackmail
Security specialist

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This information seeks to raise awareness and provides general information only. It may be necessary or appropriate  to ensure that measures are taken in addition to, or in substitution for, the measures presented having regard to your particular personal or business circumstances.