COVID has changed the world in many ways.
Once such way was the inability for celebrities to film, record and present themselves to their audiences through conventional channels. The restrictions of a COVID world have then accelerated the adoption of social media to engage with their audience, almost exclusively through the channel.
This in turn has resulted in an increase of blackmail attempts via the medium. Social media presents a direct portal through which to access high profile individuals. Never before has there existed such a direct route to celebrities across the globe. The channels also enable the ability to easily mask true identities. In an ironic twist, criminals have also resorted to social media to earn their crust.
A new phenomenon is emerging in the blackmailers modus operandi.
Historically, celebrity blackmail has occurred when a party obtains a piece of private information that will cause harm if released and thus blackmails the victim to keep quiet. The component parts are effectively possession, contact and reward.
Typical blackmail often involves possession of material that has been garnered from a trusted person. Whether that be a member of staff, former romantic partner, or family member. The possession must be unique and real, so as to have the required effect on the victim. The access to the victim’s inner circle has been the toughest hurdle to vault.
Social media blackmailers no longer need the access once sought. The digital world has provided ample opportunities to penetrate the celebrity’s sanctum. iCloud leaks and so-called “catfishing” allows anyone with an internet terminal to prey upon security vulnerabilities to access private material.
Celebrities using social media provide a conduit into their personal world. Whilst some celebrities have adopted screening practises to allow them to filter out messages containing toxic content, the process still evaluates each message. Blackmailers currently have a high confidence that they can contact the artist or the artist’s close advisors to relay the blackmail attempt. In some instances, the artist may not even be made aware of the attempt and the situation is dealt with by their representatives.
The logistics of blackmail reward have historically been complicated for anonymous blackmailers. Bag drops, proxy parties such as offshore wire transfers typically leave a trail which can be tracked by law enforcement. On top of that the recipient needs to explain where they have received their recent windfall from.
Many observers might highlight crypto currency as a preferred reward asset due to its perceived anonymity. Whilst this has some success for criminal elements, the blockchain traces the route of assets (even through mixers) to an off ramp, which can be traced to fiat currency and the beneficiary (for more info on Quintel Crypto Tracing see here). A more interesting and secure reward asset has evolved in this space.
Social media influencers (and likely victims) have the ability to earn millions through sponsored content by demonstrating the audience they can reach through their media channels. This form of advertising is extremely lucrative for all parties with brands expected to spend up to £15bn on influencer marketing by 2022. In the grandest of scales Kim Kardashian West has over 188m Instagram followers, which is larger than the population of Russia. A product or account endorsed by her through social media gives previously unimagined visibility. As such, advertisers stand to gain huge audiences through one channel and pay handsomely for it.
Therefore, in an attempt to trivialise the cost/crime and to legitimise the ‘earnings’, in some instances, reward is now being requested through social media endorsement from celebrities, displacing the financial reward to be received ‘legitimately’ from advertisers. The price of silence is a ‘like’ or ‘follow’. One ‘like’ or ‘follow’ from an influencer brings further followers to the blackmailer’s designated account increasing their audience numbers, which in turn provides an opportunity for paid advertisement from legitimate sponsors.
The knock-on effect of this is to simplify the logistics for the blackmailer. No more bag drops, cut-outs and unmarked bills, just a not illegal ‘follow’ from a celebrity to increase the earning power of their account.
The relative cost of this ‘like’ or ‘follow’ is little, the value is huge. The rational reasoning for the victim is that a simple interaction eliminates the threat.
Of course, criminals do not work like this. Any law enforcement officer who has dealt with this nexus of criminality will explain that on undertaking the required action (payment/click) , the criminal knows that the victim is susceptible to blackmail and will revert to this in the future. An example of this can be found in the Cindy Crawford blackmail in which an initial payment was made which was then followed by a further requests for payment to keep the ‘copies’ of the image they had secret. Whilst the fiscal outlay is minimal, the compromise is significant.
As with typical blackmailers, the control is maintained to ensure the threat is sustained. As the victim continues to bow to demands, they in themselves feel like they have become part of the crime, by paying off, in one way or another, the criminal.
Eventually a strategy will be needed to deal with the extortion for the long term. In almost all situations a key element of this will be to present the details to the police to enable them to act. In order to enable them sufficiently, a comprehensive investigation must be undertaken to identify the perpetrator (by alias or real life) and ensure the attempt is correctly documented. Due to the high-profile nature of these victim types, efforts should also be made in house, early on, to ensure the public relations and legal team are ahead of any prevailing story into the blackmail.
Quintel’s crisis management services are geared towards these types of sensitive matters. Our celebrity and high-profile clients rely on us to quickly respond by identifying the hostile party and gathering evidence to support a successful resolution. We have conducted successful investigations on behalf of blackmailed clients across the globe, providing confidence, security and delivering sustained long-term resolution.