SINGAPORE – Cyber criminals have exploited the increase in online activity and digital services over the last couple of years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with 203 cyber extortion cases reported in the first half of this year, a 47 per cent increase from the 138 cases cited during the same period last year.

The total number of cases last year stood at 420, said the police.

In its release of the mid-year crime statistics last Monday, the police revealed that cyber extortion victims have lost more than $754,000 so far this year, almost twice the $405,000 lost during the first six months of last year. The total amount lost by victims last year was at least $1.3 million.

In comparison, there were 245 cases for the whole of 2020, with more than $793,000 in total extorted.

Most cyber extortion cases involve victims being tricked into appearing nude or performing sexual acts in front of the webcam.

In other cases, perpetrators would persuade victims to share their nude photos or videos on social media platforms. They would then extort money from victims by threatening to circulate the footage or photos online.

In response to queries from The Sunday Times, the police said: “Cyber criminals have been taking advantage of the pandemic where a surge in online activity and digital services has been observed and people are increasingly looking for services online, or befriending persons online, thus putting them at risk of exploitation by cyber extortion.”

Instagram is the most common platform used to approach victims, followed by Facebook and Tinder, the police added.

Mr Chong Ee Jay, a cyber wellness expert at Focus on the Family Singapore, said perpetrators would never ask for revealing photos at the onset, but instead set about developing a relationship with victims first to make them feel at ease so they would eventually let their guard down.

He cited one case last year, when a girl approached him for advice regarding her classmate.

Her classmate, a Secondary 4 girl, had started talking to a man on Instagram and they exchanged many flirtatious messages.

“After three months of talking, the man asked her for photos of herself. It did not start with nude photos, but ones where she was dressed provocatively, and she gave him those photos,” said Mr Chong.

The man subsequently asked for nude photos and she refused.

“He then threatened to send the provocative photos he had to her school, to the newspapers and to pornographic sites if she did not pay him $1,000,” said Mr Chong.