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The Cobra Effect: Technology & Sextortion

indiancobraI’ve always found the Law of Unintended Consequences fascinating. In fact, I wrote extensively on this issue on my May, 2013 blog. The best example of this law might be what is called the Cobra Effect.

During the era of British rule of India, the government was concerned about the growing cobra population. To circumvent the serpents, the government offered a bounty for every dead cobra that would be brought to their offices. At first, the plan seemed to work. However, humans being human, an industry was born as stealth cobra breeding farms were launched to leverage the bounty for profit.

The government learned of the scam and eventually shut down the program. Those that had capitalized on the bounty were now stuck with hundreds if not thousands of venomous serpents. Rather than continue feeding them, they turned the snakes back to the wild. The result: India’s cobra population actually increased.

In some ways the technology that has developed to make some aspect of life easier or more efficient is similar. Today’s apps have spawned their own Cobra Effect. Technology that allows you to take a photo and immediately send it to your friend can be used to humiliate others when posted to social media and it goes viral

The same technology that allows a soldier in Afghanistan to see his newborn child via Skype, can be used to by ne’er-do-wells to extort money or favors from unsuspecting, naïve teens – a practice known as sextortion.

We have heard a lot about credit scams, whereby bank and retailer accounts are hacked and ID’s stolen. However, those financial issues are eventually, albeit often painfully restored. The issue surrounding scams such as Sextortion sometimes become permanent.

THE SEXTORTION TREND

Today there are “Sextortionist” that trick their unsuspecting prey into performing sexual acts via apps such as Skype, Facetime, Oovoo and others — all the while recording the acts without the knowledge of the victim. Once the recording is complete, the perpetrator informs the victim of the video or photos and demands ransom in the form of sexual favors or money. A document on this trend was recently published in a report by Trend Micro.

The trend has been seen in the United States and Canada with such cases as that of James Abrahams, who hacked into the webcam and hard drive of Miss Teen USA and many other women around the country – searching for inappropriate images – and then demanding more pictures or money.

Or, that of the high school dropout Tremain Hutchinson,  who spent his unemployed days stalking young girls on Tagged.com. Once he earned their trust, he’d lure girls to send naked photos. Once the pictures were sent – the sextortion threats would begin. “Send me more photos’ or I’ll send these images to everyone in your contact list.”

Eventually, one of the girls was so disgusted by his threats to kill her and her parents that she told her father – who in turn called the police. Mr. Hutchinson was eventually apprehended and is now serving time in prison.

Although the threat continues here in the United States, it is of epic proportion in Asia. The Trend Micro Report details how the brains behind these attacks seduce their victims who eventually pay significant fees to keep their videos and photos from going viral.  As reported by Trend Micro, one Asian group extorted $29,204 from 22 victims before law enforcement caught up with them and uncovered a very sophisticated strategy to find potential prey and the use of malware technology.

Although these scams have not yet grown to epic proportion in the US and Canada, we must understand that such threats do exists. With the growth of Meerkat, Periscope and YouNow, sextortionist have yet another tool in their arsenal to lure unsuspecting teens and adults to do things they might otherwise not consider.

THIS IS NOT NEW

In 2012, Amanda Todd became one of the first widely known victims of sextortion. She was only 14 and had unfettered access to her laptop in her bedroom. She used several websites and platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and  web-camera chat sites. She met what she thought was a nice young man who showed interest in her. Sadly, like so many other victims, he groomed her over time and convinced her to send a topless photo.

Sadly, her life spun out of control as he threatened to send the image to her parents, teachers and friends. She eventually succumbed to suicide after two years of threats by this man – in addition to physical abuse and cyberbullying by her peers.

Nearly nine years later, Dutch law enforcement arrested Aydin Coban, 35, for his alleged sextortion of Amanda and many other teen girls and adult men, in Canada, the United States, Britain and the Netherlands. However, it’s unknown how many other victims have gone unnoticed.  Mr. Coban continues to claim his innocence.

deep-web-1292332_960_720THE DARK WEB

In the USA TODAY article THE DARK WEB: UNTANGLING CYBERCRIME, Amanda’s mother, Carol Todd said, “In the back of my mind, I never thought of a predator, I thought the person who wanted the pictures was an older teen. I was never thinking it was a 35-year-old man on the other end.”

In reality, that’s one of the greatest issues we face with our teens. We never really know who is at the other end of the communication. Moreover, it’s difficult to gauge their intention or motivation. Amanda was looking for a friend and confidante – someone she could trust. Aydin Coban, purportedly was looking for pleasure and self-gratification. Each chose a technology that was developed to make life easier, more efficient and pleasant.

Amanda is no longer on the face of the earth. Mr. Coban is in jail awaiting his trial. Neither was the consequence each was hoping for.

Had they only known.

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