Image: Abdalla M via Unsplash

Deepfakes are adding an insidious edge to some sextortion schemes, FBI says

There was a time when sextortion schemes typically involved digital material that was either coerced or stolen from a victim. The FBI is warning now that deepfakes are changing the nature of the crime.

Some extortionists have resorted to using technology to create sexually explicit images or videos from otherwise benign content posted online, according to a new alert from the bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

The goal is generally the same as a classic sextortion scheme: The crook wants a payment to keep compromising material offline, or sometimes uses the files as leverage to pressure the victim into sending new explicit content. The difference with deepfakes is that a person could show up in a believable image or video without ever intending it, the FBI says.

“The FBI continues to receive reports from victims, including minor children and non-consenting adults, whose photos or videos were altered into explicit content,” the bureau said. “The photos or videos are then publicly circulated on social media or pornographic websites, for the purpose of harassing victims or sextortion schemes.”

Warnings about deepfakes — also known as “synthetic media” generated with machine learning tools or artificial intelligence — have been around for years as technologists, cybersecurity experts and government agencies have sought to combat their use in scams, influence operations or espionage.

The raw material for deepfakes has only increased in recent years, with the FBI noting an uptick in reports from victims who appeared in explicit content based on material “posted on their social media sites or web postings, provided to the malicious actor upon request, or captured during video chats.”

The bureau recommends that anyone who suspects they are caught in a sextortion scam to report it online or call their local FBI field office. Individuals and families can limit their potential exposure to such schemes by using caution when posting material or interacting with strangers online, the IC3 warning says.

Other suggestions from the document include:

  • Run frequent online searches of you and your children's information (e.g., full name, address, phone number, etc.) to help identify the exposure and spread of personal information on the internet.
  • Consider using reverse image search engines to locate any photos or videos that have circulated on the internet without your knowledge.

For cases involving people under 18 years old, the FBI says the Take It Down service from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children can provide free help. The FBI has reported that sextortion — which it tracks as a subset of romance scams — is responsible for millions of dollars in losses for Americans.

In some cases, victims get scammed twice when they contact bogus “assistance” organizations that pledge to help but take the money and run.

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Joe Warminsky

Joe Warminsky

is the news editor for Recorded Future News. He has more than 25 years experience as an editor and writer in the Washington, D.C., area. Most recently he helped lead CyberScoop for more than five years. Prior to that, he was a digital editor at WAMU 88.5, the NPR affiliate in Washington, and he spent more than a decade editing coverage of Congress for CQ Roll Call.