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Cassidy Wolf, the current Miss Teen USA, recently came forward claiming to be the victim of the latest and highest profile “sextortion” attempt to hit the media. Sextortion is a form of exploitation that employs non-physical coercion to extort sexual acts and favors from the victim. In Ms. Wolf’s case, the attacker used specific software to take control of her computer, viewed her through its built-in webcam, took explicit pictures of her, and downloaded files from her computer. The extortionist then threatened to release the stolen photos onto the internet unless Ms. Wolf met his demands. Instead of complying, she went to the authorities. While no arrest has been made, the FBI predicts that the attacker has victimized at least a dozen people.
Remote Administration Tools (the “RAT”) is a piece of software that allows a remote person to fully control a computer over the internet. This includes downloading files, turning on the microphone, and activating the webcam (often without activating the light that signals it is recording). The software been around for long enough that a community of RAT operators has developed, with many members detailing their exploits in posts and even photos. Several years ago, the country was astounded to hear the story of Luis Mijangos, a paraplegic middle-age man who had extorted sexually explicit photos and videos from literally hundreds of different women.
Over the past few years, it has become clear that the invasion of privacy is growing. As recently as January 2013, a man was arrested for exploiting over 350 women. In 2012, someone claiming to be Justin Bieber extorted pictures from hundreds of preteen girls before being caught. Another sextortion plot involved a group of professional poker players. The danger is pervasive: boys are targeted as well as girls, and perpetrators are sometimes as familiar as a family friend.
The danger of invasive privacy violations has become common and universal to all sexes and ages. Many people now place stickers over their webcams unless they are in use, and some disable their microphone software as well. While constant antivirus updates and internet “street” knowledge (such as not opening suspect files) can help, they are not a foolproof solution. Ms. Wolf has set a wonderful example by confronting the attacker and not bowing to the pressure of embarrassment. Victims who choose to fight will find ready assistance from the FBI and should remember that their attackers can face real punishment.
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