My sextortion birthday: Digital violence during COVID-19

I anticipated an ordinary quarantined birthday. Yet when I opened my cluttered inbox late 19 April, a spam email plunged me into a sunken depression: “I infected your computer and recorded a video showing how you satisfy yourself.” My hacker enumerated specific demands. “I don’t make any mistakes. If I see you’ve shared this message, the video will be immediately distributed.” According to my cunning captor, all devices associated with my account were subject to malicious intrusion. I had two days to transfer thousands in untraceable cryptocurrency.

Shakedowns like this highlight a surge in cybercrime during the COVID-19 pandemic. From fake loans to fraudulent charities, new reports from the United States FBI indicate a 400% increase in nefarious online activity beginning in March 2020, jumping from 1,000 complaints a day to nearly 4,000. Recent studies also demonstrate how present-day campaigns build on previous techniques, reshaped to align with our current global apprehensions. “The Internet Crime Complaint Center has seen an increase in reports of online extortion scams during the current ‘stay-at-home’ orders,” the FBI advised in a report released in April 2020. “Scammers may use this opportunity to find new victims and pressure them into sending money.” In a world where millions self-isolate solely to survive, online cruelty is another coup d'état on our sense of safety and comfort, targeting our last known source of refuge. Evidently, no personal plight is immune to criminal contrivance.

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