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December 9, 2019 | 8:46pm
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Would you know what to do if you received a threatening email?

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This week I received the nastiest email I have ever personally received. The sender claimed to have infected my computer with malware and to have used my computer’s camera to record a compromising video of me. They threatened to send the video to my family and friends if I did not send two thousand dollars in Bitcoin, a digital currency.

This was not mere spam (unsolicited commercial email). It was extortion. A felony in every state in the US. Spam is one thing, this is another.

To begin with, I knew the video as described was impossible, the malware was unlikely, and a number of statements in the email were wrong.

First Response

My first reaction was to scan my computers for malware, just in case. I doubted that malware had been installed, but I am set up to run malware scans easily, so I did. I ran both Windows Defender and MalwareBytes scans on my two Surface tablets. Why I choose MalwareBytes and Windows Defender is a subject for another blog. I did not bother to run scans on my desktop and Linux machines—they have no video recording facilities. I let scheduled daily scans take care of them. My Android phone was not likely to have been involved in the threat, so I skipped scanning it, although I would have scanned it, if I had the slightest suspicion that it might be infected.

Basic computer hygiene

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The scans, as I expected, came up clean. If malware had been detected, the urgency of the situation would have increased. Why was I so sure my machines were not infected? Because I follow basic computer hygiene rules:

  • I don’t open questionable network links in emails.
  • I don’t open email attachments unless I am certain of their origin.
  • I don’t visit dodgy click bait sites.
  • I don’t download anything until I am sure the source is legit.
  • My passwords are strong and not duplicated.

Follow those rules and you are unlikely to get malware. Scan regularly and you are even safer.

I did not feel threatened but I was annoyed. I like technology and the computer networks and I do everything I can to see that criminals who abuse them are stopped.

Local law enforcement

Although I felt safe, I was not done. My next step was to call the local police. I knew calling was unlikely to get results because few local law enforcement agencies have staff trained for dealing with cybercrime. However, I have great respect for local law enforcement, in this case, the Ferndale Police Department. I checked the Police Department website for advice.

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They suggest calling 911 for any reason to speak with an officer. That’s not good advice everywhere. Some 911 dispatch units want only emergencies. But I called 911, saying upfront that it was not an emergency and explained what had happened. 911 was glad to take my call. We live in a nice place. A Ferndale police officer called me a short time later. He explained, as I expected, that there was little Ferndale or Whatcom County could do, but he mentioned the FBI. That was what I expected.

The FBI

I am familiar with the FBI IC3 site. The name stands for Internet Crime Complaint Center. It is a central clearing house for cybercrime reports. Most cybercrime crosses state and national boundaries. This is one reason state and local law enforcement are ineffectual against cybercrime. In my case, I had done some research and found clues pointing to Thailand as the origin for the email, although I am far from certain. Successfully detecting and prosecuting a foreign extortionist from a single email is unlikely, but these guys never make only one threat. I could tell from the email that it was a template that was sent to many potential victims. They do it over and over again, and each threat is a data point that the feds can use to triangulate on the criminal and eventually catch them and their gang.

Filling out the EC3 report took less that ten minutes.

When reporting email crime, the most important evidence is the email header. Users don’t ordinarily see full headers. Email systems are a “store and forward” relay system. The email you send does not hop from your computer to the computer of the recipient. Often, email goes through several computers (servers), each forwarding to the next until the email finds its way to a server that you connect with. Each of these hops is recorded in the email header. You can get to it from your email client like Outlook or Gmail. The exact method depends on the client, but look around for something that says, “Show Detail” or “Full Header” or “Show original”. Click there and you will get something that looks like this:

Delivered-To:xxxxx@gmail.com Received:by 2002:a67:30c2:0:0:0:0:0 with
SMTP id w185csp3264948vsw; Mon, 8 Apr 2019 00:55:42 -0700 (PDT)
X-Google-Smtp-Source:
APXvYqzG1OlfaefurTjEEX80PMgA3k53DcELE8674Psd+hb9+Rb3Y1QsBpv2ljr
zP3M5Xwk= X-Received: by 2002:ab0:1d82:: with SMTP id
l2mr15233348uak.120.1554710142365; Mon, 08 Apr 2019 00:55:42
(PDT) Authentication-Results: mx.google.com;
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And a lot of other similar stuff. I copy and pasted the full header and email into the EC3 form.

The FBI investigators can use the header information to identify the origin of the email, even though the criminal usually tries to hide it. Also make sure the body of the email is included. In my case, the criminal included a Bitcoin address. Although Bitcoin transfers are vaunted to be anonymous, some arrests are made based on Bitcoin information. Flaws in software implementations don’t always favor the crooks.

What happens next?

What is likely to happen to my complaint? If mine is the only complaint against this guy, probably nothing. But if enough complaints come in, each complaint builds the profile of the criminal and eventually the pieces may fall into place and they will nab him. The US has an extradition treaty with Thailand, so the crook is not safe there.

A citizen’s duty

Most important, resources will never be allocated to crack down on cyber crime if citizens remain silent when crime occurs. That applies on every level. I wanted it on record with the Ferndale Police that had occurred in Ferndale just as much as I wanted it on record with the FBI. Ferndale is a wonderful place with friendly people everywhere, but we are still vulnerable to these sleezoids and I want the FPD to know.

As citizens, we have a duty to our community to report crime when it occurs. Law enforcement can do nothing to prevent unreported crime.

If you have more questions about cybercrime, visit “Computers & Troubles” at the Ferndale Public Library from 3pm to 4pm the first and third Wednesday of every month and talk to me about it. I’m there to help you with all your computer problems. My grandson Chris usually is there to help. (We plan to take June, July, and August off. I hope the problems do also.)

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