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On Thursday, employees and students in offices and universities across the country received emails containing a threat: Pay $20,000 in Bitcoin, or a bomb will detonate in your building. Obviously, the threat sent many institutions into a frenzy as the buildings were evacuated and law enforcement called upon.
Tweets containing screenshots of the emails started appearing everywhere containing different versions of virtually the same threat. However, by the afternoon, nearly all of the buildings had been cleared and
cybersecurity experts identified the threats as an elaborate hoax. This series of threats are believed to the next version of a Bitcoin-based scam attempt that started as a sextortion scam of sorts.
Where it all started
At first, this threat took the form of a simple low-key scam. People received emails claiming to have videos of themselves from the webcams of their laptops of them watching pornographic content. The emails demanded small sums of money be deposited in the form of Bitcoin payments in exchange for not making the alleged videos public. The lie seemed simple enough yet the perpetrators still managed to extort half a million dollars from their victims.
The threat of a bomb in your building was a severe escalation of the previous sextortion. The New York Police Department said in a warning on Twitter that the threats did not appear to be credible and that the reports were being investigated; however, they had found no bombs.
“This new bitcoin extortion scam is something else,” says security researcher Troy Mursch who has been tracking sextortion scams. “We’ve been tracking the sextortion bitcoin scam, but this is the first time we’ve seen bomb threats being sent out in the same vein as the sextortion one. It’s a terrible strategy.”
Troy Mursch also remarked that it was a terrible strategy on part of the criminals. Not only because of the disruption it caused but also because a violent threat like this coupled with the demand for a ransom of up to $20,000 will only invite more scrutiny by law enforcement agencies than actual payouts.
Even the perpetrators seemed to be aware of that fact as the emails accompanied a disclaimer of sorts attached to it which stated: “If an explosion occurred and the authorities notice this letter: we arent the terrorist organization and dont assume any liability for explosions in other buildings.”
Overall, this whole episode seems like a rather ridiculous attempt at defrauding the common masses through a poorly thought out strategy that draws the attention of several law enforcement agencies towards a group of low-level scammers that they have most likely not prepared themselves for.
However, the most damage they caused was through the chaos that ensued because of these emails. A real criminal with a real bomb could use this tactic to fool the authorities and harm the public in a more realistic manner because of the nature of these scams.