Police-reported cases of extortion have exploded in Canada rising by roughly 170 per cent from 2012 to 2018, according to Statistics Canada, largely fuelled by an increase in online “sextortion”, ransomware attacks and other digital crimes.
The latest numbers from StatCan show a 44 per cent jump from 2017 to 2018 according to police services from all provinces rising from 3,186 to 4,664. The rise is part of a years-long upward trend as the number of reported cases has grown steadily from 1,730 in 2012 to 4,664 incidents in 2018.
Toronto criminal defence lawyer Jordan Donich said the numbers are just a “fraction of the real world,” as extortion — much like fraud — is often not reported as the victim may be embarrassed or may be afraid to go to authorities.
“The victims that go to police are the ones that are left with no other option,” Donich told Global News. “A lot of the real world of extortion goes unreported.”
So-called “sextortion” cases have been on the rise in recent years and can work one of several ways, according to Donich.
There is the “revenge porn” model, where the perpetrator will threaten to reveal sexually explicit photos or videos of a former partner unless they send money or comply with specific demands. In other cases, an individual will befriend or identify the victim on social media, and work to gain trust before obtaining sexual material and then threaten to share them with the victims’ friends or family.
Donich said he’s also seen an increase in the number of clients who claim to have been extorted after having an extramarital affair.
“It’ll usually be after a number of years, then they threaten to disclose it unless they receive more money, support or sex,” he said.
Other incidents can include people being extorted over alleged crimes or threats to tarnish a person’s reputation.
Ransomware attacks – where malware infects a computer system and encrypts a victim’s data until a ransom is paid – have also increased dramatically as businesses and governments at all levels have been targeted.
In one high-profile case, the University of Calgary paid $20,000 to criminals to regain access to its computer systems. Smaller Canadian municipalities of Stratford, Ont. and Midland, Ont. have also been targeted.
“Those are the two things, it’s always sex and money,” Donich said. “The criminals bet on the fact the person is more likely to give in than go to the authorities – and a lot of the time, it works.”
The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, an organization leading the federal government’s response to cybersecurity crimes, warned in 2018 the number and scales of ransomware and other cyberattacks will increase dramatically “to steal large amounts of personal and commercial data.”
Statistics Canada said last year that roughly 40 per cent of cybersecurity attacks involving businesses in 2017 involved an attempt to steal money or demand a ransom. The agency also reported that cybercrimes had increased by over 80 per cent from 2014 to 2017.
Donich said the key to reducing the number of cases is to improve public education to help people limit their exposure to being blackmailed or extorted.
“You need to get it at the front end. That is the only way,” he said. “Leverage is what makes this dangerous. People will extort you when they think they have something on you.”
Bottom line: people will take advantage of another person if they can.
“People need to think about this: if they cheat on their spouse that person may use it against them and they have to be ready for it,” Donich said.