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.
The girl made a police report.
"This girl had just broken up with her boyfriend so she was posting quite often on social media. Similarly, some other victims may talk about their heartbreak online, in the hopes of getting some form of comfort and validation," he explained.
"But that vulnerability may draw the attention of perpetrators, who may want to exploit them."
Dr Annabelle Chow, principal clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology, agreed.
"The Internet is where many people turn to to get their needs met, whether it's physical, psychological or emotional. I think Covid-19 may have exacerbated this issue.
"During the pandemic, some people may have become more isolated and when they're lonely, they tend to be more vulnerable."
Mr Chong is worried there may be more of such cases.
"Technological advancement means that perpetrators may seek new ways to exploit and engage victims... My concern is that more young people are using technology and its platforms, so more of them could be exploited."
Dr Chow urged those in such situations to talk to a trusted adult.
"Victims should also report it to the police. There is no guarantee that the problem will go away with money, or that the culprit won't threaten them again," she added.
The police said they have been working with the National Crime Prevention Council to alert the public to the threat of cyber extortion and educate them on crime prevention measures.
"(We) will be rolling out targeted advertising on online platforms to raise awareness of cyber extortion and emphasise public vigilance," added the police.