'Sextortion' crimes on the rise in the UAE

by Jennifer Bell
August 6, 2016

ABU DHABI // A growing number of residents are falling victim to "sextortion" crimes, where blackmailers use social media to lure victims into sending explicit messages, photos or videos of themselves before extorting money in exchange for not posting the material online.

Compounding the dangers is that teenagers are not educated enough about the pitfalls the online world poses, leaving them vulnerable to criminals or predators, experts said.

David Michaux, a director of the Dubai security company Whispering Bell, said youngsters in the UAE adopted technology and social media at far higher rates than in most parts of the world, but they know little about technical security – protecting devices from viruses, trojans and malware – or ways in which online predators use malicious fake profiles.

"If you couple this with the growing number of applications and social media networks, and the way in which children seem to pick up the latest trends faster than adults, we are left with quite a broad area that needs to be addressed," he said.

While anti-virus programmes and internet restrictions in the UAE prevent users from surfing sites considered dangerous or inappropriate, technology can only go so far towards protecting children online, Mr Michaux said.

"The rest can only really be taught by enforcing the dangers that come from the real world and how these apply in the cyberworld," he said.

Teenagers need to be more wary of the crimes linked to social media, such as blackmail, cyberstalking, identity theft, paedophilia or trolls who set up fake profiles in the name of their victims to post damaging or embarrassing material.

"With Facebook estimating between 5 to 11.5 per cent of profiles to be fake, and Twitter estimating around 5 per cent, it really does leave you wondering what all these fake accounts are being used for, and how you can really trust an online persona, with the answer being you can’t," said Mr Michaux. "This issue is exceptionally difficult to improve with technology and really has to come down to educating children about the dangers that the online world poses."

Pokemon Go, he said, was a great example of how new technology was bringing with it new threats.

The game, which involves players looking at their mobile screens to find virtual Pokemon characters in the real world using augmented reality, has been blamed for accidents as players are distracted. There have now also been reports of how criminals are using the game to lure victims.

Players can send a "beacon" to other users via the game to show that a Pokemon character might be nearby, which could be hijacked by criminals.

Eric Eifert said his DarkMatter company was seeing a rise in the number and sophistication of cyber crimes – and often young adults are the most gullible victims.

"This is as a result of the growing number of social-media sites and mobile applications that can easily collect and publish private information without the users’ knowledge," he said. "Youths within the UAE can easily fall victim to these types of scams if they are unaware of the threats lurking on social media and other apps."

Mr Eifert said anyone who used social media allowed information about their private lives to become public and that can be used by criminals.

"Millennials have a better understanding and comfort level with this technology and accept the fact that they are providing information to the public domain, which makes them an easier target for social engineering and scams like we are seeing," he said. "Social-media platforms harvest a wealth of personal information from users, who often don’t even realise the inherent risk in sharing such details until an incident occurs in which privacy is compromised."

Mr Eifert said more awareness was needed "from the critical infrastructure operated by nations all the way down to the smartphone in the pocket of a 16-year-old". "We believe awareness levels could always be higher, particular when it comes to personal data," he said.