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Sinister scams 'sextort' social networkers

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A rash of cases in which men use their hacking skills to extort sexually explicit images from women and girls is bringing new attention to the risks of storing sensitive data on social networks and internet-connected devices.

The most recent “sextortion” plot to be detailed in a court of law is that of George Samuel Bronk, a 23-year-old California man accused of appropriating nude and sexually explicit images of at least 170 women, Sgt. Kelly Dixon of the California Highway Patrol's Computer Crimes Division told The Register. He was arraigned on Tuesday in California state court in Sacramento on more than 30 counts, including hacking, possession of child pornography and impersonation. He didn't enter a plea, Dixon said.

Investigators have identified more than 20 victims whose images are included in the cache of stolen pictures and videos. In some cases, Bronk allegedly contacted the women and threatened to make the images public unless they supplied him with more nude pictures. He was caught after a Connecticut woman told her state police department that sexually explicit photographs of her had been posted to her Facebook page. Police ultimately fingered Bronk by linking his IP address to the woman's hacked Facebook and email accounts.

A Canadian man, 30-year-old Daniel Lesiewicz, admitted to luring hundreds of girls aged 13 to 18 into a similar trap, according to news reports. At a sentencing hearing last month, prosecutors said he used compromised Facebook accounts to pose as some of the victims' friends and convinced the girls to undress in front of their webcams. He then threatened to publish the images unless they gave him more.

In some cases, he terrorized the girls by calling their cellphones from what appeared to be their own numbers. One victim, who was 17 at the time, testified that she was so humiliated that she quit her summer job and dropped out of advanced college classes. Another victim attempted suicide, The Montreal Gazette reported. Sentencing has been postponed until later this month.

Earlier this week, the FBI's field office in Los Angeles sought help from the public in identifying more victims of Luis Mijangos, 31, of Santa Ana, California, who in June was arrested and accused of using infected computers to capture nude pictures and videos of about 230 individuals, at least 44 of whom were juveniles.

According to prosecutors, Mijangos used peer-to-peer file-sharing networks to trick his victims into installing software that gave him complete control of their machines. He then rifled through the hard drives for intimate images and other incriminating data, which he would use to extort sexually explicit videos from the victims, court documents allege. He has pleaded not guilty to charges that include extortion.

Crimes like these may be unusually plentiful in the news right now, but they're hardly new. In 2006, Adrian Ringland, then 36, from Ilkeston, Derbyshire, admitted blackmailing teenage girls into sending him explicit pictures after infecting their PCs with malware. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The list of similar offenses goes on and on and on.

That the reports only seem to be increasing suggests that many people still don't understand the risks of storing photos and information online. Many of the victims' accounts were compromised by by correctly guessing the security questions used when an account holder forgets her password. In other instances, racy photos were nicked from compromised email accounts or computers. Those who collect such images would do well to keep them on drives that aren't attached to the net at all. ®

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