What is cyber extortion?

Cyber extortion occurs when someone uses social media, email or other online platforms to pressure victims into handing over money or other goods. If the victim refuses, the extortionist threatens to release compromising information about the victim. With larger firms, cyber extortionists may cripple the victim’s data systems with what is called ransomware. It encrypts information that can only be accessed if the victim pays the ransom.

In today’s online world, it is important to have strong passwords and to not use the same ones for different sign-ins. However, it is difficult to remember every password if they are all unique. When most of us are asked to enter a password to take advantage of an online deal, we just type in the same one that we use for something such as online banking. However, if the online deal you are applying for is not legitimate, you could be giving cybercriminals valuable information they can use to hack into your bank account.

How common is ransomware?

According to a report from the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, “ransomware has become one of the most popular types of cybercrime.” It adds that these attacks increased by 151 per cent in 2021 compared to the year before, adding “the estimated average cost of a data breach, a compromise that includes but is not limited to ransomware, is $6.35 million.”

The report adds that the Centre has knowledge of 235 ransomware incidents against Canadian victims from Jan. 1 to Nov. 16, 2021. “It is important to note, however, that most ransomware events remain unreported,” it adds.

The TELUS Canadian Ransomware Study states that 83 per cent of Canadian businesses reported attempted ransomware attacks and 67 per cent have experienced one. That includes the tech firm Acer, which paid US$50 million for the return of stolen data.

The TELUS study states that the average ransom paid by Canadian organizations is $140,000. That number only accounts for 16 per cent of the direct costs of an attack, it adds, since it does not include downtime for the firm as well as the cost of mitigation, recovery and regulatory fines.

Does cyber extortion happen in Ottawa?

In late 2001 an Ottawa man was charged in relation to several ransomware attacks on targets in Canada and the United States. According to a news report, police allege he was responsible for numerous ransomware attacks affecting businesses, government agencies and private individuals throughout Canada as well as U.S.-based cyber-related offences.

"Cyber criminals are opportunistic and will target any business or individual they identify as vulnerable,” an OPP officer said. “The OPP [will continue to] seamlessly collaborate on integrated police investigations to combat cybercrimes and other illegal activities.”

What if you receive a cyber extortion message?

Many ransom demands are fake and can be ignored, though you should have someone look at your email settings to filter those out. If you feel the demand is real, or if you have already lost money as a result of the fraudulent communication, Ottawa residents can file a report online with the Ottawa Police Service.

To prevent further loss of monetary funds, police recommend that you:

  • cancel your cards and notify your bank of the fraudulent activity;
  • ignore any further communications from the person and inform them that you have called the police; and
  • keep all documentation until it is requested by investigators.

When dealing with random emails or text messages demanding money, it is best to hit the delete button. If you reply and say something like, “You have the wrong person,” the person who sent it will know your email address is valid and will follow up with more unsolicited messages.

What is sextortion?

People sometimes receive messages from someone alleging they have compromising photos or video footage of them. Those messages are often accompanied by a threat to release the material unless a payment is received or if the victim agrees to do more online performances. Ottawa police say that many people who receive these messages will send money, or they will agree to engage in further cyber sexual activity in exchange for the information not being released.

Does sextortion occur in Ottawa?

In March of 2022, an 18-year-old Ottawa man was charged with extortion after police allege that a 15-year-old girl was “coerced into providing intimate images” of herself to him, according to a media report.

Another report notes that a Kanata resident pleaded guilty in 2021 to an online sextortion scheme involving five young women who were convinced to perform sexually degrading acts live online for his own gratification.

The man met the women through Snapchat or WhatsApp and would send them money to win their trust, the story notes. They were then persuaded to do a live intimate show for him, which he would record. He then threatened to release that video if they did not follow up with more shows that were more graphic.

Though the man pleaded guilty to five offences, his sentencing was delayed because the Crown Attorney’s Office filed an application to have him declared a dangerous offender, the report states. If that application is successful, he would be given an indeterminate prison sentence which would be reviewed in seven years and then every two years after that.

Is sharing an ‘intimate image’ online a crime?

In 2014, the federal government enacted the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act. This act made it a criminal office to distribute intimate images of someone without their consent. If you are convicted the penalty can be harsh, with a maximum sentence of five years if the charge is treated as an indictable offence.

The Criminal Code defines an intimate image as any photo, film or video recording where a person is naked or is exposing their genital, anal area or breasts. It also includes images of them engaged in explicit sexual activity.

The image or footage must have been shot in circumstances where the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy, meaning that they did not know it would be circulated to others.

What are my defences for sharing an intimate image?

One defence against this crime is contained in s. 162.3 of the Code, where it states that a person cannot be convicted of this crime “if the conduct that forms the subject-matter of the charge serves the public good and does not extend beyond what serves the public good.”

There is little case law to say what that could be.

Another argument could be that the sharing of the photo was accidental or inadvertent.

If the police violated your rights granted under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms when investigating the charge against you, that can also be used as a strong defence. After all, s. 8 of the Charter guarantees that we all have a right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. If that has happened, I will be able to argue in court that any evidence that the police gathered should be excluded from trial.

Contact me for assistance

As society’s reliance on online communication increases so does the incidence of cybercrimes. If you have been charged, contact me for a free consultation. Tell me your side of the story, so I can craft your best defence.

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