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How organised sextortion fraudsters could ramp up efforts to target the lonely this Christmas

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sextortion fraudsters

Lonely, vulnerable men spending Christmas alone this year should be wary of falling victim to the growing number of organised criminal gangs that are becoming involved in online sextortion blackmail scams. Police in the UK this morning said sextortion fraudsters are likely to up their activity levels over the festive period, conscious of the fact that many people passing the holidays alone will be more prone to seeking out virtual company online at this time of year. In a bid to make members of the public more aware of the scam, which has been growing in popularity over recent years, Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) yesterday released a new animation that explains how people are targeted by sextortion fraudsters, and what action they should take if they face blackmail.

Sextortion scammers set up bogus profiles on social media platforms and dating sites looking to attract lonely people in search of forming a relationship online. The fake profiles typically include pictures of attractive young women stolen from elsewhere on the internet, which are used as a means by which to draw the attention of men looking for love. While women can and do fall for sextortion scams, the majority of victims are men, with fraudsters generally more likely to target lonely females in romance scams, which often play out over a much longer period of time. After spending a short period gaining a victim’s trust once initial contact has been made, sextortion scammers persuade their targets to take their clothes off and perform sex acts in front of a webcam. As soon as this has been done, the fraudsters immediately drop their pretence and threaten to post the resultant footage online for the victim’s friends and families to see if a ransom is not paid. If the blackmailers get their money, they typically always come back for more, knowing that a victim who hands over cash once will likely do so again. On some occasions, victims have made multiple payments before realising their tormentors will just keep coming back for more.

While some cases of sextortion involve lone offenders operating independently behind a single computer screen, organised criminal gangs are increasingly becoming involved in the scam, setting up call centre-style operations in countries such as the Philippines from which multiple blackmailers target as many potential victims as possible, hoping that they bite. Cases have been reported in which scammers have managed to obtain the email addresses of a victim’s friends and family, and have threatened to distribute compromising webcam footage should a payment not be made. Investigators in both the UK and the US have reported a rising number of sextortion cases over the past few years, but believe the problem could be considerably more widespread than figures suggest, mainly on account of the fact that victims are often too embarrassed to report what has happened to them.

For some victims, falling for a sextortion scam can prove deadly, with British police claiming to be aware of at least five young men who have taken their own lives having been blackmailed over compromising webcam footage of themselves. In some cases, sextortion blackmailers have even been known to encourage their victims to commit suicide if they are unable to pay up. In August last year, a Romanian man was jailed for four years in his home country after being convicted of being behind a sextortion scam that resulted in a Northern Ireland teenager killing himself. Iulian Enache was convicted of tricking 17-year-old Ronan Hughes into sharing compromising pictures of himself online. Ransom demands from a gang Enache is said to have been a member of pushed Hughes to take his own life in June 2015.

While the successful prosecution of sextortion scammers is rare, the Hughes case demonstrates that investigators can secure convictions if they are made aware of these types of offences. Enache was caught after specialist cyber crime investigators from Northern Ireland were able to trace the computer from which he sent his blackmail threats to the teenager. In its new campaign, the NCA stresses the importance of victims coming forward as soon as possible. If you are targeted in a sextortion scam this Christmas, police recommend that you refuse to pay any money demanded, cut off all contact with the fraudsters attempting to blackmail you, and get in touch with police at the earliest opportunity. As well meaning that the criminals who targeted you might be caught and brought to justice, reporting your experience could also make it less likely that somebody else will fall victim to the same scam. While being aware of signs you might be about to fall victim to a sextortion blackmail attempt is the best way of keeping yourself safe, the fact that the crime is becoming more of a recognised problem means law enforcement agencies are now better placed to help you should you find yourself being blackmailed.

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Islamist or far right, terrorist prisoners should remain behind bars if there is the slightest suspicion they could still pose a risk

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terrorist prisoners should remain behind bars

The British government last week very sensibly moved to make sure dangerous terrorist prisoners cannot be released halfway through their sentences to maim and murder innocent members of the public. In emergency legislation tabled in Parliament after two Islamists launched bloody attacks over the past few months having both been let out of jail early, UK government ministers sought to prevent extremists from being set free prior to serving at least two-thirds of their sentence. Even then, cases would need to be referred to the Parole Board for consideration before an inmate could be freed, according to the draft legislation. Under British law as it stands, terrorist suspects are automatically released from jail halfway through their sentences even if authorities believe they could still pose a threat.

The unveiling of the proposed new law prompted some commentators to complain that simply locking up terrorists and throwing away the key is no way to deal with radicalised individuals, as is often the case whenever stricter sentencing for these types of offences is floated as an idea. In reality though, while the suggested new measures may be a start, they go nowhere near far enough.

While the multiple terror attacks the UK endured throughout 2017 were not enough to force any meaningful change, one need only look at the events of the past few months to see how desperately reform of current legislation is needed. In November of last year, an Islamist extremist who had been let out of jail early after being convicted of plotting to launch attacks on several London landmarks stabbed two people to death while attending a conference on rehabilitating offenders in Fishmongers’ Hall near London Bridge.

If it were not for the bravery of members of the public, who tackled Usman Khan before armed police arrived on the scene and shot him dead, it is likely that many more victims would have lost their lives. Khan was handed an indeterminate prison sentence for “public protection” with a minimum jail term of eight years after he was convicted of a range of terrorist offences in 2012, including plotting an attack on the London Stock Exchange. Despite this, he was freed in December 2018, less than a year before he launched his deadly attack.

Just months later, another Islamist extremist stabbed two people in the London suburb of Streatham after being released halfway through a terror-related prison sentence just days earlier. Sudesh Amman was shot dead by a police officer who was part of team keeping him under surveillance due to worries about the danger he posed. Amman was set free after being jailed for possessing documents containing terrorist information and disseminating terrorist publications. If nothing else, the fact the 20-year-old jihadist was released from custody despite being considered so dangerous that he required police surveillance demonstrated just how wrong-headed current UK law is.

How can it be the case that a potentially violent extremist can be let out of prison when he is considered such a threat that he requires a team of detectives to monitor his movements? While it is of course a good thing that officers were on hand to neutralise Amman after he launched his attack, would it not have been better for all concerned if he was not been freed in the first place?

Over the approaching months, scores of convicted terrorists will be coming up for release in Britain, which is one of the reasons the UK government is so keen to push through its new legislation as soon as possible. But while the new law might buy ministers some breathing space by keeping dangerous extremists off the streets in the short term, all it effectively does is kick the problem into the long grass. Even if some extremists are forced to serve the whole of their tariff behind bars, there will be no guarantee they will not hold the same views that inspired their original crimes once they are eventually released from jail. This will be the case whether the offender of is an Islamist or a member of a far-right organisation, although the former group is by some margin a more worrying concern in the UK at present.

As such, the law must act accordingly. A system under which terrorists are handed determinate sentences is no longer fit for purpose, as has been demonstrated repeatedly not only in the UK but also elsewhere. Members of the public deserve to be protected from dangerous extremists, which means none should be allowed to walk the streets until any suspicion that they might pose a risk has been completely discounted. The long and short of the matter is that so long as those harbouring dangerous extremist attitudes are not allowed back on the streets, their chances of acting out their ideological impulses will be much diminished, and you and I will feel safer going  about our business without the fear of being stabbed in the neck by a convicted terrorist whose rightful place is behind bars.

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Opinion

How virtual credit card skimmers successfully target blue-chip firms that should have the resources to repel their attacks

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virtual credit card skimmers

Despite the banking industry’s best efforts and the launch of a multitude of awareness-raising campaigns by law enforcement agencies across the globe, criminals are still able to use ATM machine and point-of-sale (POS) payment system skimmers to harvest consumers’ credit card details with relative ease. In just the past few weeks, a French-Brazilian man was handed a suspended jail sentence in Australia after being convicted of using an ATM skimmer to fleece victims of tens of thousands of dollars, while police in numerous states across the US have reported increased incidents of credit card skimming devices being found attached to payment consoles at petrol station pumps.

If it were not bad enough that the makers of cash machines and POS devices appear to be completely unable to prevent a scam that now seems relatively low-tech in nature, hackers are increasingly turning to a virtual version of credit card skimming that targets information entered by buyers during the checkout process on ecommerce platforms.

Earlier this week, Interpol revealed that it had supported an operation that resulted in the arrest of three suspects in Indonesia who are alleged to have used digital skimming code to steal the personal credit card information of consumers using multiple ecommerce platforms. The international law enforcement agency said the three suspects went on to use the card details they stole to buy electrical equipment before selling it on at a profit.

In collaboration with online security firm Group-IB, Interpol also identified several servers associated with this type of crime and a number of infected websites in six countries in the ASEAN region. The results of the operation demonstrated the relative ease with which virtual credit card skimmers can be deployed, highlighting the fact that they can be difficult to detect and can be bought and deployed by hackers easily for as little as $250.

This type of cyber crime activity is often referred to as Magecart, an umbrella term coined to describe the act of using so-called JavaScript sniffer malware to target ecommerce websites built on the Magento platform. By maliciously injecting a simple yet effective code into such websites, Magecart hackers are able to steal consumers’ card details and personal information as they go through checkout pages at the end of the purchasing process.

Much in the same way as physical skimmers capture credit card information and PINs at ATM and POS machines, JavaScript sniffers record payment card details and personal information such as names, addresses and phone numbers and then send this on to servers controlled by the hackers behind the scam. As well as using this information to make purchases, cyber criminals can also put credit card details on sale in bulk on the dark web, or use the information they steal to commit identity fraud.

While consumers will more often than not get their money back if their credit card information is compromised by JavaScript sniffer malware, companies targeted in such scams can suffer lasting reputational damage, and can in some cases face fines for failing to protect their customers’ data. Despite the potential consequences, businesses that one would assume would have more than adequate resources to direct towards ensuring the security of their IT systems have fallen victim to Magecart-style attacks, including British Airways and Ticketmaster.

This comes down to the fact that JavaScript sniffer code can be so difficult to detect once it has been injected into a website. At the end of December, Malwarebytes security researcher Jérôme Segura explained in a blog post how JavaScript sniffer code can be hidden in such seemingly innocuous website components as wieldy-used boilerplate “free shipping”  image files. Segura noted that media files are good places for hackers to hide such code on account of the fact that most web crawlers and scanners concentrate on HTML and JavaScript files.

While it may seem strange to some observers that the banking industry and global law enforcement agencies have failed to neutralise the threat posed by physical credit card skimmers, the ease with which Magecart hackers can compromise companies’ IT systems makes the threat posed by JavaScript sniffers all the more pernicious. While the success of Interpol’s recent operation demonstrates that it is possible to identify and bring Magecart cyber criminals to justice, the fact that it can take as little as one line of code to compromise ecommerce platforms makes it very difficult to head off these types of attacks before they start producing results.

In March of last year, Group-IB revealed that Magecart malware that took the form of just one line of code had comprised more than 800 websites, including one run in the UK by apparel maker FILA. With finding such code being like searching for a needle in a haystack, it seems likely that Magecart attacks will live as long and happy a life as physical credit card skimming.

 

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Opinion

If the UK press is so racist, why do Prince Andrew’s alleged wrongdoings generate so many more column inches than ‘Asian’ grooming gangs?

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‘Asian’ grooming gangs

Much has been made over recent weeks of the way Meghan Markle has been treated by the British press since she married Prince Harry some 20 months ago. She has, we are told by her supporters, been made to endure the most appalling abuse, particularly at the hands of the UK print media. It has been repeatedly suggested that this has been meted out solely on account of Markle’s skin colour, and has absolutely nothing to do with the manner in which she has conducted herself since joining the royal family. The difference between the coverage she receives and that enjoyed by Prince William’s wife Kate Middleton, it is argued, simply comes down to skin colour.

Accusations of racism are routinely levelled at parts of the British media, and are in some cases well deserved. But whether or not you believe Meghan Markle has been hounded by reporters and journalists due to the fact she is of mixed race, there is little evidence to suggest that Prince Andrew has in any way benefitted from the colour of his skin when it comes to media coverage of his alleged wrongdoings. That is of course entirely correct.

Accusations that the Duke of York may have been involved in sex trafficking should be taken extremely seriously. As should the very well documented fact that he maintained a relationship with the disgraced and now deceased US financier Jeffrey Epstein after he had been convicted of procuring an underage girl for prostitution and sex trafficking.

Thanks to UK media coverage of his alleged behaviour, Prince Andrew’s life is now almost unrecognisable compared to this time last year. Following weeks of lurid headlines about his party lifestyle and discussion relating to his ability to sweat, the Duke was effectively sacked from the royal family, and lost almost all his “work”. The press did its job; exposing wrongdoing and holding Andrew to account. Having white skin did him few favours on this occasion it would seem, and failed to protect him from an absolute mauling from the British media.

But if the UK press truly is as racist as is often claimed, one could surely expect that it would stop at nothing to investigate repeated revelations about mostly Pakistani Muslim paedophile grooming gangs raping poor white working-class girls with at least the same vigour as it would allegations about the Duke of York? Apparently not.

Last week, the Times of London reported that it had seen a report that showed the UK’s Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) had upheld a complaint that a police officer from Rotherham ignored allegations that such gangs existed because the town “would erupt” if it were  known that Asian men were routinely having sex with under-age white girls. While the story received moderate levels of media coverage for a couple of days, it garnered nothing approaching the attention generated by the allegations relating to Prince Andrew.

There is a pattern here. In the UK, barely a month goes by without reports of “Asian” gangs being brought before the country’s courts to face charges of raping vulnerable young white girls. Earlier this month, the BBC reported that Leeds Crown Court had heard that a grooming gang in Huddersfield preyed on two “young and vulnerable” teenage girls, with one victim estimating she “had sex with up to 300 men”.

In December, the Independent reported that campaigners had called for the UK government to keep a promise to review grooming gang “characteristics” after revealing that more than 18,700 suspected victims of child sexual exploitation were identified by local authorities in 2018-19. In November, the Yorkshire Post reported that five men who sexually exploited young girls in Huddersfield had been handed jail sentences of up to 14 years. To say this is an epidemic would be an extraordinary understatement. In fact, research published by the Quilliam Foundation in 2017 revealed that 84% of “grooming gang” offenders were at the time “South Asian”.

Despite this, the above stories and many others like them receive nothing approaching the blanket coverage the disgraceful allegations against Prince Andrew were rightly given towards the back end of last year. Surely, if the UK media was as racist as some people claim, reports of mostly Pakistani Muslim paedophile gangs raping young white working-class girls would receive at least comparable coverage to the accusations facing the Duke of York? Fortunately for the members of these gangs, it would appear that the British press is beset by a form of racism to which they are immune.

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