FTC Warns of Sextortion Attacks on LGBTQ+ Dating Apps

Close up of Pride Rainbow Flag waving in the wind

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a public alert about a rise in extortion scams against members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Scammers and cybercrooks are reportedly taking to dating apps such as Grindr and Feeld to induce victims into sending explicit photos — which the criminals will then use to blackmail their victims.

FTC Provides Details on Attacks

These types of attacks are referred to as sextortion scams, threats that have been lurking online for some time. Here, the attackers threaten to send explicit pictures, chats, or information such as the browsing history of victims to their family, friends, employers, and acquaintances, unless they are paid a ransom.

According to the FTC — which issued the June 22 alert as part of its efforts to raise awareness about romance scams during Pride Month — a typical attack on an LGBTQ+ dating app follows the following pattern:

An attacker impersonates an app user looking for a romantic partner and begins a chat with potential victims. Soon after, the attacker sends their target explicit photos, asking for similar photos in return. Unfortunately, if the target obliges, the attacker receives the ammunition they need to begin the extortion.

The attacker threatens to share explicit pictures or conversations with people close to the victim, and can also exploit victims who have not come out completely to their friends and family by threatening to reveal this information.

“Other scammers threaten people who are ‘closeted’ or not yet fully ‘out’ as LGBTQ+. They may pressure you to pay up or be outed, claiming they’ll ‘ruin your life’ by exposing explicit photos or conversations,” the FTC alert reads.

The FTC pointed out that these attacks have a financial motive, and many attackers demand payment by gift card.

Sextortion Scams Rose During the Pandemic

The FTC put out a similar alert in September of last year. In fact, the rise in sextortion scams goes back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the FBI noted an increase in online extortion scams. The FBI noted that scammers took advantage of the nationwide stay-at-home orders to ramp up their malicious activities.

“The scammers are sending e-mails threatening to release sexually explicit photos or personally compromising videos to the individual’s contacts if they do not pay,” the FBI stated in April 2020.

In response to the scams, Grindr offered a statement to the AARP last year:

“We are disturbed and disappointed to hear of scams targeting elders, queer people, or anyone. Grindr is committed to maintaining an open platform for the LGBTQ+ community … and we continually take steps to facilitate a safe experience.”

FTC Issues List of Recommendations

The Alert also contains a list of general recommendations to protect yourself from scams. The FTC has told users not to share personal information with people they’ve just met on a dating app. This includes information such as cell phone numbers, email addresses, and social media profiles.

Furthermore, when talking to someone on a dating app, it is important to verify who you are talking to. The FTC recommends doing a reverse image search of the person’s profile picture to check if it has any ties to other names. Any signs of a mismatch, or details that do not add up, are a warning sign.

If you happen to fall victim to a scam and send across private photos or conversations, do not pay the attackers, the FTC said. There is no guarantee that they will destroy the evidence or not share the files once they receive the money.

“If you spot a scam, report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. And please share what you know with others during #CelebratePride2022,” the alert adds.

Sextortion Attacks Can Severely Affect Victims

Sextortion scams are a serious issue as they can be extremely humiliating for the victims. Worryingly, young people and teenagers are a common target group for such malicious campaigns.

According to multiple surveys, a large number of victims require mental healthcare after an attack. Many victims even have to move away from the city or town where they live. Unfortunately, the humiliation of sextortion attacks has even led to victims committing suicide.

We recommend reading our detailed article on sextortion scams. It contains important information on the most common types of attacks, so you know what to watch out for.

Technology policy researcher
Prateek is a technology policy researcher with a background in law. His areas of interest include data protection, privacy, digital currencies, and digital literacy. Outside of his research interests, Prateek is an avid reader and is engaged in projects on sustainable farming practices in India.