A recent study from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) reveals a significant surge in a cybercrime known as “financial sextortion” in North America and Australia. The increase is attributed in large part to a non-organized cybercriminal group in West Africa, self-identifying as “Yahoo Boys,” according to the NCRI report.
The FBI defines sextortion as a crime involving adults coercing children and teens into sending explicit images online. Perpetrators threaten victims with widespread distribution of explicit content, including to the victims’ friends and family, unless they comply with repeated payments through various peer-to-peer payment apps, cryptocurrency transfers, and gift cards.
The study highlights the use of social apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Wizz by cybercriminals to identify and connect with potential victims. The tactics employed by Yahoo Boys have gained popularity as a quick way to accumulate wealth in West Africa, where alternative means of income are scarce.
Despite a growing number of reported sextortion cases, the NCRI researchers note that platforms used by Yahoo Boys and other threat actors have been slow to moderate their content or implement changes to mitigate the spread of sextortion.
NCRI emphasizes that sextortion is a transnational crime threat, causing a significant number of deaths in the United States. The impact is particularly severe on boys and young men, often leading some victims to contemplate suicide.
Recent cases, such as the extradition of two Nigerian men to the U.S. in August 2023, shed light on the severe consequences of sextortion schemes. These men faced charges related to a sextortion scheme that allegedly led to the suicide of a 17-year-old Michigan high school student.
The NCRI study identifies the Yahoo Boys’ promotion of their tactics through training videos and guides on platforms like TikTok, Scribd, and YouTube. The researchers found numerous videos depicting Yahoo Boys engaging in sextortion and scripts on Scribd teaching others to extort victims. These materials, viewed over half a million times, were flagged by NBC News and CNBC.
Major social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, Scribd, and Meta have rules against content promoting criminal activities, but the study suggests a need for more proactive measures, including the removal of sextortion guides and materials. The researchers also call for improved privacy measures on platforms like Instagram to reduce the risk of cybercriminals infiltrating victims’ personal networks.
While some platforms have taken steps to address the issue, such as TikTok removing flagged videos, the study suggests that more can be done by tech companies to combat sextortion and protect users, especially young people.
The study also criticizes Wizz, citing it as a platform where sextortion is pervasive and dangerous. Wizz claims to use automatic moderation systems to prevent the transmission of nude images, but child safety groups report cases where alleged victims are moved to other apps like Snapchat after initial connections on Wizz.
The NCRI study concludes by urging app stores like Apple’s App Store and Google Play to monitor complaints related to sextortion and enforce existing policies. The study coincides with increased scrutiny of social media’s impact on young people, with various platforms and CEOs facing questions about their efforts to combat sextortion and enhance child safety online.