As I discuss in another report, sextortion scammers have lately been including user passwords in their scam emails as a way of making their false claim seem more plausible. And, in another variation, the scammers include part of the recipient’s phone number instead of the password.
These fake blackmail sextortion scams are not new. Typically, the scammers send out many thousands of identical emails that claim that they have used malware to capture video of the recipient visiting a porn site. They warn that they will send this compromising video to all of the recipient’s contacts if they do not receive a payment via Bitcoin.
But in fact, the scammers have not really created the compromising video or installed any malware. Nor have they hijacked the recipient’s contacts list. The whole thing is just a bluff. But, the scammers bank on the fact that at least a few recipients will be panicked into sending the requested money.
And, including real passwords and real phone numbers certainly increases the likelihood that recipients will believe the bogus claims, panic, and pay up.
Of course, passwords and phone numbers or not, the scam is still the same old bluff.
So, how are the scammers getting the passwords and phone numbers and matching them with the correct email addresses?
It is likely that the scammers are using some sort of script that extracts passwords and phone numbers from an old data breach and automatically matches it to the corresponding email address. The scammers can then distribute large numbers of scam emails that will all be identical except for the password or phone number that matches each email address.
The scammers may be using phone numbers rather than passwords simply because, while people will (hopefully) change their passwords fairly regularly, they will likely keep the same phone numbers for long periods. Many people have reported that the passwords included in the scam emails are very old and no longer in use. But, receiving a version of the scam email that includes your current phone number may make it appear that the scammer really does have access to your information.
And, of course, phone numbers are much more accessible and open than user passwords and may be available from a variety of sources including phone directories, websites, social media pages, and email signatures. But, to make the scam work effectively, the scammers would need to employ some mechanism to quickly match a great many phone numbers and email addresses. So they are likely using some sort of database – breached or otherwise – that includes both pieces of information.
If you receive one of these emails, the best thing to do is just hit the delete button. Do not reply or respond in any way.
However, if the email includes your real password or phone number you should check that the corresponding email address is not associated with a known data breach. You can do so by entering the email address into Troy Hunt’s excellent “have i been pwned” service.
If any accounts that use that email address have been breached, you should certainly change the account passwords as soon as possible. In fact, regardless of breaches, it is a good idea to change your passwords regularly.