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Webcam Scams: Inside the Dark World of Online Blackmail and Sextortion

By April 17, 2018 April 18th, 2018 No Comments
This story was originally published on the BBC’s website. It has been edited for length and content. Some may find the following material sexually graphic and/or triggering. Reader discretion is advised.

One night, a young Palestinian man living abroad fell victim to an online scam, involving a web camera and a beautiful woman. Here Samir (not his real name) tells the story of how he was trapped, and below, the BBC’s Reda el Mawy visits the Moroccan boomtown where many of the scammers are based.

It’s just harmless webcamming…right?

It happened when I was home alone. This girl added me on Facebook. I didn’t think it was anything strange – I often get friend requests from old school friends who I don’t know well.

The next day she sends me a message: “Hi, how are you? I saw your profile and I liked you.” So I looked at her profile and, I mean, she was really hot. With a girl like this, you lose your head.

That night she starts messaging me via Skype. She says she’s 23, her parents are dead, and she lives with her older sister in Sidon, Lebanon. She says she’s bored because she doesn’t study or work and that her sister is very strict. I ask her about her hobbies and she says she likes sex. She loves it, she says.

“Hmm,” I thought, “this is interesting.” At this point I am curious but unsure, because it’s strange how easily she’s talking about sex with a stranger. But I was bored, my girlfriend was out of town, and didn’t have anything to do. So I figured, “What the hell, I’ll chat with this girl and see where it goes.”

Eventually, she asks if I have a webcam. So I turn on my video and say, “Can I see you too?” She turns on her video and when I see her, you know, she is a really beautiful girl. With a girl like this, you lose your head.

We continue chatting, but only in messages, not actually speaking. She says she’s afraid her sister will hear her. As we’re chatting she tells me that talking with me is turning her on. I’m thinking because she lives with her strict sister, in the south of Lebanon rather than in a more open place like Beirut, maybe she’s frustrated and looks for sexual encounters online.

Then she asks me to get naked, so I do. Then I say, “OK, your turn.” She lies on the bed, undresses, and starts performing for me. I’d never seen anything like it. It was so easy. Too good to be true.

So I start getting into it, too. She tells me to put the camera on my face because it excites her, so I move the camera back and forth between my naked body and my face. After a few minutes, still naked, she comes back to the keyboard to chat with me. She asks me what I do, and I tell her I work in marketing in Milan.

“Oh, so you must be rich!” she says.

“Well, I get by,” I say.

Then she says she hears her sister coming, so she gets dressed and signs off.

Game Over

A half hour later I get a message on Facebook. “Listen,” it says, “I’m a man, and I recorded a video of you touching yourself. Do you want to see it?” He sends me the video. It’s about five minutes of me…naked and touching myself.

“I have a list of your friends and family from Facebook – your mum, your sister, your cousins,” he says. “You have one week to to send me 5,000 euros ($5,450), or I’ll send them the video.”

I was in shock. My first thought was to send him the money immediately. But I cancel her, or him, as a Skype contact and right away I get a message on WhatsApp.

“I’m here,” it says.

So I plead with him. I tell him I don’t have 5,000 euros. He says, “Of course you do, you have a good job in Europe.” “No,” I tell him, “that was a lie, just to impress the girl, I’m just a pizza delivery guy.”

Then I remember a photo I had sent her of me tiling my bathroom and I say, “Look, do you think if I were some rich guy I’d tile my own bathroom?”

He’s sort of convinced by this and says, “That may be true, but I don’t care. You have one week to send me 2,000 euros. Otherwise, I’m sending the video to your family.”

I try to calm down and think rationally. If I send him money, what is to stop him from coming back and demanding more?

Then he sends me the link to the video on WhatsApp – I feel sick to my stomach.

Then it occurs to me that if he sends the video to my contacts – people he isn’t friends with – it will go to a junk inbox that no-one checks. And even if they check it, I figure, who is going to open a video file from an unknown person? It could be a virus. So I have two choices: I send him the money and I have no guarantee he doesn’t ask for more, or I refuse and hope no one looks at the video.

The day comes, though, when he messages me and says, “OK, I’m about to upload the video to YouTube.”

“Upload it,” I tell him. “I don’t care anymore.”

Then I change my privacy settings so no-one can post to my wall or tag me without my consent. Then he sends me the link to the video on WhatsApp. I watch it again. It’s me, naked and touching myself, on YouTube. I feel sick to my stomach.

Immediately I start reporting the video to YouTube for sexual content. I report it, close the page, reload the link, and report it again. Over and over. He sends me a message saying he’s about to send the link to my relatives on Facebook if I don’t pay.

“Go ahead,” I tell him, “send it.”

When I asked why he was picking on a poor young guy like me he had said, “You think I don’t target rich guys in the Gulf states? Of course I do.”

I couldn’t pay him. First 2,000 euros, then perhaps 5,000. Where would it end? He was so upset. He starts sending me insults, telling me he’ll send the video to my mother, to everyone I know.

I keep reporting the video. Each time I’m watching the number of views to see if anyone else has viewed it. After about an hour, YouTube takes the video down. From what I can tell, all the views were mine, except for one. That could have been him viewing it after he uploaded it, or one of my relatives. I’ll never know for sure, but I’ve never heard from anyone. Maybe a male relative saw it and never told anyone.

Can you imagine, though, if an aunt had seen it? She would have told another aunt, her husband, her kids, soon my whole family would have known. I have family all over the world, the US, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Europe. And what if my mum sees this? I would have thrown myself out the window from the shame.

After the video was taken down I didn’t hear from the guy again. I imagine he moved on to bigger fish. I remember when I asked why he was picking on a poor young guy like me he had said, “You think I don’t target rich guys in the Gulf states? Of course I do. You’re lucky I can see from your Facebook page you’re not married, or I would be asking for a lot more money.”

I think it’s over, but every now and then I check YouTube to see if he’s re-uploaded it.

An Industry of Extortion

The “23-year-old Lebanese girl” who “chatted with” Samir on Skype was almost certainly a young man from Oued Zem, a small town in central Morocco that has become known as the capital of the “sextortion” industry.

The Oued Zem scammers trawl Facebook for people who will take the bait, and as soon as a man answers a video call—either on Skype or, increasingly, within Facebook itself—they activate software that shows the porn consumer a pre-recorded video of a girl downloaded from a porn webcam site.

Map of Morocco

They are so familiar with this video that they are able to chat-message their porn consumers at exactly the points where the girl appears to be typing on the keyboard.

“We ask him to take off his clothes and to do obscene gestures,” says one young scammer I will call Omar.

“It’s crucial that … this is filmed with his face on screen so the video looks credible. When we’ve got the recording we upload it to YouTube and send it to him in a private message. That’s when the threatening starts. We spend 20 minutes chatting, 20 minutes for the video, and 20 minutes threatening – threatening and negotiating. They all pay.”

He adds, “The weak point of Arabs is sex. So you look for their weaknesses, and you exploit them. The other weakness is when they are married, for example. You can exploit that. Then there are the really religious guys. You see someone who looks like a sheikh, carrying the Koran, and you think, ‘There’s no way he’ll fall for this – but let’s try him anyway.’ And when you try, he falls for it.”

Omar says he earns about $500 (£400) every day from the scam, and that hundreds of other young men in Oued Zem are doing the same.

I counted at least 50 international money transfer offices in the town. The manager of one of these offices told me that he took in about $8,500 (£7,000) every day, and that the vast majority of that was blackmail money. There are German cars and Japanese motorbikes in the streets, and fancy café-restaurants that provide a front for families that need an explanation for their new-found wealth.

In the UK, Wayne May runs an online community, Scam Survivors, that offers advice and support to those caught up in the webcam sextortion racket. Since 2012 he has received more than 14,000 requests for help from tricked webcam chatters all over the world, including the UK and the US. Many are young Arab men, he says, and about a third of all the scams originate in Morocco.

Before the advent of social media, Oued Zem was largely reliant on remittances from people working in Europe. But with the economic crash of 2008, remittances dropped—and this was exactly the moment that Facebook and webcams were becoming everyday tools of communication.

Omar said he was not proud of what he does, and that he wanted to stop scamming.

Reporting by Sean O’Neill, Reda el Mawy, and Daniel Silas Adamson. For more, visit the original article here.

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Why This Matters

These are some serious, life-changing problems for a split second decision like pressing ‘send,’ or in this case, ‘record.’

It may be easy to cast blame on people for putting themselves in that sketchy situation in the first place, and the real concern is the porn culture that has created, normalized, and fueled this sextortion business. At the end of the day, it can’t be denied that webcam chatting has been so normalized in society and publicized by the porn industry that consumers everywhere may not understand the consequences or risks they’re taking by engaging with this toxic content.

Every day, we receive messages from people all around the world telling us about the pornographic online requests they get from supposedly legit Instagram and Facebook accounts. It’s a facade for a dark industry that thrives on abuse, blackmail, and exploitation. The exposure of this sextortion industry is further proof that even “just a little porn” can be really harmful in normalizing webcamming scams, and nothing is really private on the Internet.

The next time you’re in a situation where this seemingly harmless exchange of images or videos is about to go down, remember how pressing that send button can never be taken back. Internet porn can very easily open up a door to a very dark and shady world that is seriously damaging the lives of real people and normalizing exploitation and objectification.

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