This is a frequent scam – sometimes they’ll send it from your own email address to “prove” that they hacked your account (they haven’t – for historical reasons, email servers only check when you’re relaying thru the server, not when it’s the final destination, but that gets fixed soon. Here’s a sample:
Don’t panic. Contrary to the claims in your email, you haven’t been hacked (or at least, that’s not what prompted that email). This is merely a new variation on an old scam which is popularly being called “sextortion.” This is a type of online phishing that is targeting people around the world and preying off digital-age fears.
We’ll talk about a few steps to take to protect yourself, but the first and foremost piece of advice we have: do not pay the ransom.
What makes the email especially alarming is that, to prove their authenticity, they begin the emails showing you a password you once used or currently use.
Again, this still doesn’t mean you’ve been hacked. The scammers in this case likely matched up a database of emails and stolen passwords and sent this scam out to potentially millions of people, hoping that enough of them would be worried enough and pay out that the scam would become profitable.
Here are some quick answers to the questions many people ask after receiving these emails.
They have my password! How did they get my password?
Unfortunately, in the modern age, data breaches are common and massive sets of passwords make their way to the criminal corners of the Internet. Scammers likely obtained such a list for the express purpose of including a kernel of truth in an otherwise boilerplate mass email.
If the password emailed to you is one that you still use, in any context whatsoever, STOP USING IT and change it NOW! And regardless of whether or not you still use that password it’s always a good idea to use a password manager.
And of course, you should always change your password when you’re alerted that your information has been leaked in a breach. You can also use a service like Have I Been Pwned to check whether you have been part of one of the more well-known password dumps.
Should I respond to the email?
Absolutely not. With this type of scam, the perpetrator relies on the likelihood that a small number of people will respond out of a batch of potentially millions. Fundamentally this isn’t that much different from the old Nigerian prince scam, just with a different hook. By default they expect most people will not even open the email, let alone read it. But once they get a response—and a conversation is initiated—they will likely move into a more advanced stage of the scam. It’s better to not respond at all.
So, I shouldn’t pay the ransom?
You should not pay the ransom. If you pay the ransom, you’re not only losing money but you’re encouraging the scammers to continue phishing other people. If you do pay, then the scammers may also use that as a pressure point to continue to blackmail you, knowing that you’re are susceptible.
What should I do instead?
As we said before, for sure stop using the password that the scammer used in the phishing email, and consider employing a password manager to keep your passwords strong and unique. Moving forward, you should make sure to enable two-factor authentication whenever that is an option on your online accounts. You can also check out our Surveillance Self-Defense guide for more tips on how to protect your security and privacy online.
We know this experience isn’t fun, but it’s also not the end of the world. Just ignore the scammers’ empty threats and practice good password hygiene going forward!