Extortion schemes in online dating have existed since there's been online dating. But a new form of the scheme has victimized the Ann Arbor Police Department.
The way this scheme works, is, first, a hacker will "access the personal accounts" of people on dating sites.
Then the hacker will claim to have "possession of sexually explicit photos of an underage female," found on the victims' social media accounts.
The hacker then claims to be with the Ann Arbor Police Department and offers a choice: render payment in the form of a pre-paid debit card or "other similar transaction," or be prosecuted.
It's a scam, Ann Arbor police stress.
Investigators do use the phone to contact suspects, said Lt. Matthew Lige of the Ann Arbor Police Department. But police would never suggest that someone could escape criminal charges by paying hush money.
"We're never going to use the leverage of a criminal investigation to extort money," Lige said.
The people behind what Lige called a "textbook extortion scheme" will claim, using the names of current Ann Arbor police officials, that they've been in contact with the family of the underage girls whose pictures had supposedly been posted. These contacts are made online or via telephone. Then they'll quote a price and say that if the money is paid, the victim won't be prosecuted.
Hackers have not yet gone so far as to actually post explicit images on the victims' pages. They'll just claim to have found the pictures.
Several victims have notified Ann Arbor of being harassed in this way. Lige declined to name the dating sites involved. Officers' names have been used, but not yet photos.
Ann Arbor Police Department's website has the names of much of its personnel publicly available. That level of transparency will be reviewed, Lige said, to make sure officers' privacy rights are protected.
"There's an effort here," Lige said. The hackers not only have to learn the names of Ann Arbor police personnel but the real names of the victims. People often use screen names on dating websites.
"And there are probably dozens who have paid up, who we'll never hear about," Lige said. "The duress you could be under, believing you're the target of a criminal investigation, is scary. They know the buzzwords."
"Investigations involving the possession of sexually explicit photographs are not conducted in this manner," the department urges.
Ann Arbor police are asking anyone victimized by this extortion scheme, or who have information on the person or people behind it, to call Lt. Lige, at (734) 794-6930, ext. 49301.